Thursday, May 26, 2016


Motherland by Katherine Lyall Watson.

Directed by Caroline Dunphy. Composer and sound designer Dane Alexander. Set and costume designer Penny Challen. Lighting designer David Walters.  A Critical Stages and Ellen Belloo Production. The Q Theatre. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. May 25-28 2016

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Playwright Katherine Lyall Watson

For many years now Critical Stages productions have confronted important issues, taken risks and maintained a professional and innovative standard of excellence. Motherland, currently being performed at The Q Theatre in Queanbeyan maintains Critical Stages’ excellent reputation, a reputation shared with Ellen Boo, whose mission is “to bring people and stories out of the shadows”

Barbara Lowing as Nina in
Motherland does just this. Epic in its scope, the play spans the twentieth century, three continents, World War ll, the Russian revolution and Queensland’s Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption. In merely ninety minutes of uninterrupted drama, the play examines the lives of three remarkable women and their relationships during times of momentous struggle and conflict. It is a play of survival, of the indomitable human spirit and of the consequence of love’s fortune. Central to the drama is the story of Nina, played with powerful conviction by Barbara Lowing. Nina is the survivor. She has lived through the Russian Revolution, the two World Wars and the oppressive Stalinist regime.  Forced to live with a secret, she must conceal her love for Brisbane woman, Nell Tritton (Kerith Atkinson), a passionate devotee of Russia and its culture, and eventually the wife of exiled Russian Prime Minister, Alex Kerensky (Peter Cossar). The stories of Nina and Nell are based on real life characters, whose fascinating and meaningful lives have been lost in the shadows of time. They are brought to life in Motherland with passion, poignancy and respect for the dramatic and life changing experiences of the victims of history’s tidal force and relentless swathes through humanity.

Barbara Lowing as Nina and Kerith Atkinson as
Nell Tritton in Motherhood
Playwright Katherine Lyall Watson introduces another woman, Alyona,( Rebecca Riggs) a Russian refugee from Moscow, who with her son, Khodasevich,(  a difficult and undeveloped role,given only a cursory characterization by Daniel Murphy) escapes with the help of Australian Chris, also played by Cossar, to Australia, in an attempt to create a free and safe life in a foreign land. Pervading the fate of all three women and the men in their lives is the omnipotent nature of the Motherland.  Nina struggles with her male intellectual lover, Sasha,in a more effective and engaging performance by Murphy, through her writings and advocacy to battle oppression and survive the corruption and brutality of a motherland battered and bruised by historical events and political power struggles. Nell must flee her adopted motherland to be with Kerensky, only to eventually return to die in her Australian motherland. Alyona desperately strives to discover herself in her adopted Australia, while her son longs to return to his motherland.  Longing tears the characters apart. “Do you regret the choices you made” Alyona asks of Nina. “What we seek is redemption” is Nina’s cryptic reply. This is the tragedy all characters are compelled to confront in this gripping account of displacement, fractured dreams and confused identity.

Barbara Lowing as Nina in Motherhood
Director, Caroline Murphy seamlessly directs her actors to keep the action fluid as actors change characters and switch swiftly from scene to scene, emotion to emotion and Moscow to France to Brisbane.  This ambitious attempt to embrace the sweep of time with the experience of the people caught up in history’s turmoil is not without its challenges. Each story, and especially the true stories of Nina and Nell, their relationships and their illicit love is food enough for a far more expansive drama. An excellent cast, highlighted by the dynamism of Lowing’s mature and powerful performance, strive to engage an audience in a story across countries and time that is too fleeting in its account and disempowers a more intense engagement with theme and character. I would have preferred Lyall Watson to have focused on the real life drama of the lives of Nina and Nell.  From the stirring Russian Workers’ chorus that opens the play to the deafening blasts of wartime artillery and the poignant reading of Nell’s letters to Nina towards the end of the performance, Motherland never ceases to involve. As a touring production, easily transportable, finely directed and expertly performed by a fine cast, with a sensitivity for the many issues and the lives of real characters, Motherland will fascinate and provoke thoughtfulness and empathy.

Daniel Murphy as Sasha. Rebecca Riggs as Alyona and
Peter Cossar as Chris in Motherhood
This production of Motherland from Critical Stages and Ellen  Belloo has left me intrigued, grateful for  the powerful and true stories that deserve to be told, and yet feeling  that so much more of this tale still remains hidden in the shadows.