Sunday, March 5, 2017

Cold Light

Cold Light adapted by Alana Valentine, based on the novel by Frank Moorhouse.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, March 4-18, 2017.

Director: Caroline Stacey
Designers: Set – Maria T Reginato; Costumes – Imogen Keen; Lighting – Linda Buck; Sound – Kimmo Vennonen; Movement – Zsuzsi Soboslay; Voice Coach – Dianna Nixon.

Sonia Todd as Edith

Tobias Cole as Ambrose / ASIO man / Party Goer 3

Gerard Carroll as Richard / Thomas / John Latham / Victor Hall / Party Goer 1

Craig Alexander as Trevor Gibson / Fred Berry / Tock / Eisenhower

Kiki Skountzos as Janice Linnett / Amelia / Woman

Nick Byrne as Robert Menzies PM / Scraper / Gough Whitlam / Waiter / George T. McDowell, Yihzar, Party Goer 2

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 4

This production is a bravura attempt at a very difficult task.  On opening night, in contrast with the conventional whoops and whistles at curtain call (a quite recently developed Australian de rigeur tradition even for straight plays), for large chunks of time during the performance the audience paid close attention but without too much emotional engagement, except for an occasional laugh. 

The play begins in 1950 Canberra, a greenfields location selected before World War I for the nation’s capital, deliberately distant from both the competing major state capitals – Melbourne and Sydney – and still hardly developed.  I first visited in 1956 and watched cows being herded along Northbourne Avenue between the Melbourne and Sydney Buildings.  As Edith quipped, on Page 3 of the script, “ Canberra one can enjoy the privileges and discomfort of three modes of living in one place – the capital, the rural life and exile.”  That got arguably the biggest laugh of the night, from an audience perhaps including a number of experienced DFAT people.  [That’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which in the play was still known as External Affairs – a title with appropriate innuendoes, according to Edith’s experiences.]

The character, Edith, appears to be entirely fictional, in this last part of her life until her death, shot by a sniper in Beirut in 1974. 

To understand the play, and appreciate the complexity of Alana Valentine’s task in adapting Moorhouse’s 719 page novel (which I’ve never read), here is a neat intro from

It is 1950, the League of Nations has collapsed and the newly formed United Nations has rejected all those who worked and fought for the League. Edith Campbell Berry, who joined the League in Geneva before the war, is out of a job, her vision shattered. With her sexually unconventional husband, Ambrose [posted to the British Embassy], she comes back to Australia to live in Canberra.

Edith now has ambitions to become Australia's first female ambassador, but while she waits for a Call from On High, she finds herself caught up in the planning of the national capital and the dream that it should be 'a city like no other'. [In the play, the design by Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, which won the 1912 competition, plays a major role.  Edith supports PM Menzies to include the Griffins’ plan for a lake – now Lake Burley Griffin.]

When her communist brother, Frederick, turns up out of the blue after many years of absence, she becomes concerned that he may jeopardise her chances of becoming a diplomat. It is not a safe time to be a communist in Australia or to be related to one, but she refuses to be cowed by the anti-communist sentiment sweeping the country. [Menzies was forced constitutionally in 1951 to hold a referendum which sought approval for the federal government to ban the Communist Party of Australia. It was not carried. [,_1951_(Communists_and_Communism)]

It is also not a safe time or place to be 'a wife with a lavender husband'. After pursuing the Bloomsbury life for many years, Edith finds herself fearful of being exposed. Unexpectedly, in mid-life she also realises that she yearns for children. When she meets a man who could offer not only security but a ready-made family, she consults the Book of Crossroads and the answer changes the course of her life.

It’s the details of how her life changes that makes the play seem interminable as Edith leaves the cross-dresser but sexually amusing Ambrose after he is recalled to London, marries Richard (whose sexual behaviour is conventional, but gross), and bit by bit over 24 years works her way up through the Conservative Prime Ministerships of Anglophile and Canberra town planner Robert Menzies (1949-1966);
Harold Holt who drowned ‘in accidental circumstances on 17 December 1967’ [] (1966-1967);
John McEwen (1967); John Gorton (1968-1970); William [Billy] McMahon (1971-72);
and finally Labour's Gough Whitlam (1972-1975), who recognises Edith’s competence in international affairs, makes her an ‘eminent person’ and sends her off with Victor Hall to find out “whether we can trust the Non-Proliferation Treaty”.

On this trip, Hall, faced with the fact that ‘Secrecy about their nuclear weapons is part of the Israeli military and diplomatic strategy’, arranges as a ‘guest of the Israeli Defence Force’ to visit Beirut, during the ‘First Lebanese War’ called ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ (1972-75) .

Edith:  “Oh, I’d love to come to see Beirut again.  I was there before the war, the Second World War.  Back then I spent many nights in the Kit Kat Club.”  As they drive “even though we are in a non-military vehicle”, four shots are fired.  Edith dances in turn, between shots, with the communists Fred and Janice, and then with her first husband Ambrose, saying after the third shot:

“...It’s not what the world hands you, but what you try to wrest from it.  That is all that is valuable.  To act, to speak, to make.  To live, to live, to live it.  Your allegiance must be to the republic of the mind, not to any country or state.  The republic of the mind is worth ...

A final shot.

... everything.”

This should be, and to some extent was, a powerful ending.  The production, in terms of the set design, costume design, sound design and acting of the key roles by Sonia Todd and Tobias Cole as Edith and Ambrose was top class. Lighting was over-fussy, and as a result sometimes missed its mark; while set changes – for the 9 scenes in Act One and 11 scenes in Act Two – slowed the action down far too much, and were often quite confusing as actors apparently in role moved sections of the backdrop and brought furniture and props on and off, some times in dimmed pauses but often while other action was going on.

The script ($10 with the full production details, published by Currency Press) states “This production runs for approximately 140 minutes including an interval” while The Street's web page says 2 hours 40 minutes.  But opening night started a little after the advertised time of 7.30pm and finished close to 10.30pm.  That’s about 3 hours rather than 2 hours 40 minutes.  By then the potential power had been dissipated.

Was this just first night?  Will the run see a 20 minute speed improvement?  Or are there questions about the directing and/or the writing?

This is where things get difficult for a reviewer.  Interestingly, the original novel seems to have attracted a wide range of opinions.  Most are encouraged by a rare Australian novel making the attempt to cover our history in this way.  Some make a great deal out of the story of a woman taking such an initiative in the League of Nations, and bemoaning her treatment in the Public Service back home in Australia. 

But, of course, we all have biasses in making judgements on artistic work.  Since reviewing Alana Valentine’s Letters to Lindy (August 2016) and her MP (October 2011), I am naturally biassed in her favour.  At the same time, not having read Frank Moorhouse, I am a bit concerned about the quality of Alana’s source material, particularly after finding this comment on the goodreads website by Karen Leopoldina (I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting):

an impressive opening, and the ending still lingers, but what about those 700 odd pages in between? weight is what i think of with this book: its physical mass matched by the weight of all that research which mired the narrative into a sludge that was almost inert at times. i love history, and i love books which use invented characters and places them in the midst of a real historical context. but research needs to be worn lightly, and this indeed mr moorhouse does not do. oh not indeed. this reader, at least, felt bludgeoned at times as his characters seemed merely mouthpieces for various ideas that concerned its author. but despite my qualms about narrative pace, and whether i was engaged by any of the characters – the central character of Edith Berry was particularly unconvincing, least of all as a woman – i was still impressed by the intellectual scope and ambition of this book. it is so rare in australia to read a book of ideas: even rarer to find a writer who dares to write one.

I had similar thoughts after 3 hours rather than ‘700 odd pages’, so I wonder if the play needed to find a better way to limit its scope and focus.  Maybe, though the surrounding set design was visually terrific, the staging could have been done much more simply, with, say, three lit areas on an open stage where Edith would move between – a cafe table, a desk, a lounge – with little other furniture (except the cumquats, I guess).  Then there would be no need for physical set changes, characters would appear from upstage centre, left or right to interact with Edith and depart.  The sound track would tell us what we needed to know – such as the sound of the car driving into Beirut and the gun shots.

Instead of what seemed to be a mix of naturalism and stylisation, a minimal setting would opt for consistent stylisation, which the dialogue as I read it in the text seems to require.  The action would flow more smoothly (and quickly).

And perhaps then my feeling that some lengthy speeches and drawn out sequences needed cutting (such as Ambrose’s too long mime in drag), might have been allayed.  Then, too, the sections of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poem, spoken from a fixed microphone (without it needing to be mysteriously moved about the stage by other characters) could have been used with a clearer purpose.  Since it began the play, it could be used to bookend each Act – perhaps in Brechtian or Tennessee Williams style, with the words and the author’s name projected for us to read as Edith spoke.  Not everyone nowadays has read, or maybe even heard of Adam Lindsay Gordon.

The idea of presenting Cold Light is well worthwhile and even an important contribution to Australian theatre, so I would like to see it better focussed and structured dramatically.