The Governor’s Family
Written by Beatrix Christian. Directed by Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Theatre 3. Canberra Repertory Society. July 1-17 2021. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
Beatrix Christian’s period drama is set in the young Australian colony of New South Wales in the year 1897 during the final years of Queen Victoria’s very long reign. Canberra Repertory Society’s ambitious production under the direction of Tony Llewellyn-Jones only partly succeeds in scaling the political and personal conflicts that Christian confronts in a fictitious drama jam-packed with a plethora of themes and ideas that resonate as powerfully today as they may have done in in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Inspired by a case of young colonial lads who were hanged for raping a young aboriginal girl, Christian constructs an intricate web of dark secrets in an age when the establishment clings to the past while the young struggle to construct a new society of independent thought and political and personal reform. On the cusp of a new century, the old order is threatened by a rebellious surge of generational desire for change. Governor Howard Mountgarret (Peter Holland) is compelled to cling to his loyalty towards his sovereign queen, while his children Lara (an excellent and absorbing performance by Caitlin Baker) and his son Gerald ( a suitably naïve Robbie Haltiner) strive to forge a new identity in a new land. Lara breathes the spirit of the early suffragette movement and is devoted to reformist Irishman Tammy Lee Mackenzie (a convincing performance by Jack Casey as a working class radical). Christian quickly presents the struggles between Mountgarret, his detached wife Helena (Antonia Kitzel) and the children, the feisty Lara and aspiring poet,Gerald. Into this convoluted mix of identities and issues, Christian introduces Frances Pod (Kiara Tomkins in her first theatrical venture), a young aboriginal who has been raped and is curiously employed by Mountgarret as a housemaid while he considers the fate of the rapists, including Mackenzie’s brothers.
Christian, with the deft skill of a masterful storyteller embroiders her tale of personal and political struggle with the further inclusion of the introduction of the young aboriginal and a dark secret that serves the tension that grips the fate of the characters flung together by Mountgarrett’s flawed actions. The Governor’s Family is a tale of reprisal and retribution, of aspiration and disillusionment and the destructive nature of intransigence, consumed in the flames of regeneration. As the demented Helena’s infant child is consumed in an earlier fire, so too are the sins of the governor and the shackles of the past consumed by the flames of a new age of protest and rebellion.
Mountgarrett is trapped in a web of his own making. Christian’s text is rich in ritual and symbolism and needs to be carefully navigated over four carefully constructed acts. The Governor’s Family is a steep mountain for any theatre company to climb. Canberra Rep makes a valiant attempt to scale the challenges of Christian’s text and ideas but director Llewellyn-Jones appears to have focused more on plot than character and more on outward show than on inner motivation. The expository first half lacks cohesion, made even less involving by set designer Andrew Kay’s Periaktos (three sided revolving set) which strove to tackle the dilemma of moving from one short scene to another in quick succession, but the revolve was slow and noisy, interrupting the flow of the production. Actors would exit in character, but then drop character before the revolve had obscured their exit. Consequently the essential tension, necessary to sustain the curiosity was sometimes lacking. On opening night it was not until the heightened drama of the second half that the actors appeared to be more at ease with the more intense pace of the production. Rep’s consistently strong production crew played a greater role as the drama built towards its inevitable climax in the second half and the torments of Mountgarret’s secret past became revealed and the world that he had clung to so tenaciously crumbled. The use of scrim material worked well to heighten the mystery of the play.
The Governor’s Family is an indictment of a society that refuses to change and recognize the circumstances of a new age and a new world. Written as it was in 1997, the play serves as a warning at the re-emergence of conservative political and social ideals under the Howard government. It is the importance of this warning that I found lacking in Rep’s production. I assume that as the season progresses the cast will gain greater confidence and intellectual appreciation of their character’s purpose in Christian’s complex and revolutionary play.