Life, as experienced by the protagonists of this play, may well have been a Bag O’Marbles. But it was certainly no bowl of cherries. This is the story of a family doing it tough and violent in rural Australia in the fifties. A time and a place where it was an oppressive man’s world, and when he was troubled everyone else could damn well suffer the consequences.
The story is a familiar one: part of the history of what women’s liberation was fighting against, and part of the reason why, sadly, women’s refuges still play an important role in the lives of some women, who can if they’re lucky and live in a large enough centre escape to one. But violence is only one of the marbles in the baggage of this family’s life, and playwright Kathryn Ash has woven a complex net of interactions between the members of Samantha’s extended family, as seen by her on her journey home. While this journey is almost all in the mind, it is played out with earthy intensity by an ensemble cast on a stage whose setting and lighting bring to life the heat, dust, barrenness and Spartan homes of farmers who are barely able to scratch out a living in the more sunburnt parts of our country.
This is, at the same time, a play that will impinge on different people in very different ways, and totally vindicates the theatrical practice of giving reviewers two tickets to a show. In this case, my reactions were very different from those of my companion, who reacted on the basis of experiences that I had only heard about. And, talking about this afterwards (and for Bag O’Marbles one can only do this then, as there is no interval), I realised that I had missed out on the emotional intensity that had moved some of the audience to tears at the way in which elements of their past were skewered with what I am told was painful accuracy.
Meanwhile, I was intellectualising aspects of the play, and seeing parallels with some others that I had reviewed in the past year. The very differently oriented Jake’s Women, for example, by quintessential New York Jewish playwright Neil Simon, also involved extensive encounters with “figments” of the main character’s imagination, in reliving and reworking elements of past relationships and events. And Louis Nowra’s very similarly oriented Summer of the Aliens had the main character, in adulthood, as narrator of an extended flashback to his life as a sensitive adolescent in difficult circumstances in small town sixties Australia.
I was also hampered by unfulfilled expectations of the structure of the play, anticipating that it would play along conventional lines, where a young woman first reminisces about her family, and then arrives back home to be with them for some event. For that reason, therefore, as the play unfolded, I saw the imaginatively surreal counterpointing of her traumatised past against insights from her present perspective as just the lead-in to the rest of the action. And I kept expecting a shift into her here and now. Which didn’t eventuate. What was interesting, then, was to find out afterwards from the program notes that my expectation was in fact the original way in which the play was performed, in 1994. Ash says that it was only while reworking it in 2000, that she became bothered by the second act and rewrote it because “the first act is surreal. The second act was not. [It] was set in real time with real time reactions. The difference between acts amounted to a rupture in style”.
Under Michael Gow’s direction, her play in its present form is an extremely forceful production with excellent performances from all its cast. Carol Burns is particularly moving as Rose, the mother whose spirit survives being a victim of her time and place. And Peter Marshall gives a tragic impotence to Stanley’s trajectory from a man filled with hopes and dreams to one who only knows how to take his frustrations out on his family. Marshall also has to juggle two roles, that of Stanley and of Phillip, the son he is moulding in his own light, and in doing so opens up the question of whether this device is of the author’s making, or due to some other creative or budgetary consideration. Whatever the reason, the need to cast a youngish man to straddle both parts means that his Stanley is slightly out of step, in a physical sense, with the older-looking Rose in their younger couplings a disparity that could easily have been addressed with some more judicious use of hair colouring and/or hat.
Karen Crone gives a sparky touch to her role as Shirley, a woman bursting with life and with love for the children she can’t have, while Susan Prince plays Cynthia with the right amount of brusque pragmatism and cynicism as the stay-at-home sister of Samantha. Stephanie Briarwood has the key and highly complex role of Samantha, the voyager who is drawn into various scenes of her past while at the same time analysing it in the light of her life since then, as the one who got away. Briarwood gives an insightful performance of a person who is struggling to understand what it was that has contributed to who she now is, and is only hamstrung by the slightly stagy monologues she is given to set some of the scenes.
Ash has described this play as a comedy, in the dry, laconic style that is “quintessentially Australian”, so it has to be said that neither my companion nor I found much to laugh at. As it is soon to be given a rehearsed reading in New York, it will be interesting to hear whether it tickles the funny bone of an audience in a country where all things Australian appear to be flavour of the month.