Monday, October 3, 2016

The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

Photo by Brett Boardman

The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell.  Belvoir in associastion with Oombarra Productions at Belvoir St Theatre, September 17 - October 16, 2016.

Directed by Leticia Cáceres
Designers: Set by Stephen Curtis; Costume by Tess Schofield; Lighting by Verity Hampson; Composer / Sound – THE SWEATS
Dramaturg – Anthea Williams
Movement – Scott Witt
Traditional Movement and Language Consultant / Spear Maker – Sean Choolburra

Cast: Leah Purcell – Drover’s Wife; Mark Coles Smith – Yadaka; Will McDonald – Danny; Benedict Hardie – Merchant / Leslie / McPharlen; Tony Cogin – McNealy / Parsen

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 1

It’s some time since I have been so directly affected by a play that I feel incompetent to make the conventional kind of critical judgement about the production.  The first occasion was when I was just 18.  Watching the first performance in Australia, with Frank Waters as Tyrone and Dinah Shearing as Mary Tyrone, of Long Day’s Journey Into Night was an awful experience in 1969 as I was drawn in to Eugene O’Neill’s self-destructing family. 

Conversations with the Dead by Richard Frankland, in August 2003, was a more recent play of this highly personal kind of response to life experience (my review is available at ).  And now another, like Frankland’s coming from an Aboriginal writer, in Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife.

The title, of course, is of Henry Lawson’s perhaps most famous story, published in 1893, of which Leah Purcell writes: Like many Australians, I’ve grown up with this story and love it.  My mother would read or recite it to me, but before she got to that famous last line, I would stop her and say, ‘Mother, I won’t ever go a drovin’.

Purcell’s story starts from the lonely wife whose husband goes away droving sheep for months on end, leaving her in 1893 … Alpine country, southern New South Wales, but she incorporates into her version the experiences of her Aboriginal great grandfather.  So Lawson’s white drover’s wife waiting for the opportunity to shoot a snake discovers her own Aboriginal identity as Yadaka appears in her gun sights.  It seemed to me that the writing, the development, the rehearsing and finally her performing of this role is so close to Leah's self that I don’t want to interfere with her feelings, even though she has termed the result an “Australian western for the stage”, as if the American western gun-toting cowboy is from a genre suited to our bush way of life in the days when the wars against Aboriginals were real, although never acknowledged as such.

In any case Purcell’s story develops into a level of hard reality way beyond any Hollywood heroics, or even of Tarantino who she references in her Director’s Note.

All I can say is that Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife is a remarkable piece of theatre which, even this far in its run, was treated by the audience as a great community event, an expression not only of Leah’s personal work as an artist but also as a celebration of making Indigenous and women’s rights central in our history, and by implication in our present time.

Purcell’s words make her feelings clear:  A massive thank you to the Balnaves Foundation for the 2014 award I received to help bring this play to fruition.  I also want to thank Mr [Eamon] Flack for commissioning my play.  It was the first play he programmed as Artistic Director, allowing me to continue my 20 year working relationship as actor, writer and director for Belvoir St Theatre… It means a lot.  Such a lot.  Thank you.