The Great Exception

(Visy Theatre)


Written by the Company, or, The Knowing of Mary Poppins

Professional production – theatreACTIVAT8

Everyone knows Mary Poppins, right? She’s the pretty Julie Andrews in the Disney film, black hair screwed into a fierce knot, wearing a straw hat and holding a smart black umbrella and a carpet bag, her feet turned outwards like a ballerina.

Wrong! Her creator, Helen Lyndon Goff (who preferred to be known as P.L. Travers), hated the character Disney had created, and repudiated the film and the Sixties twist Disney had put on her sternly moral nanny, especially the notion that Mary and Bert the Pavement Artist could be romantically attached.

For Travers, Mary Poppins was the eternal Goddess endlessly seeking the great god Zeus. She was certainly not an autobiographical figure, and Valerie Lawson’s 1999 biography, Out of the Sky She Came , revealed many facts about this idiosyncratic author she was born and bred in Queensland, her father was the bank manager at Allora, she went to England and became an actor, published erotic poetry and studied dance with the spiritualist and mystic Gurdjieff. She never married, but in her forties adopted an Irish baby called Camillus, separating him at birth from his twin brother. She died at the age of 96.

She has been described as vain, controlling and humourless, but also as profoundly damaged and needy, but above all she was a survivor to live as a successful single woman author during the early part of the 20th century is no mean achievement.

Leah Mercer, director and co-writer of this amazing play The Great Exception, which has just finished an all-too-short run at the Brisbane Powerhouse, has brought all these elements together in a portrayal of P.L. Travers which shows her metaphorically as the Triple Goddess who is present in every woman, in her manifestations as Virgin, Matron and Crone. To do this, she has used supremely talented three actors Stace Callaghan, Carol Schmidt and Margie Brown-Ash as separate but intertwined personae, as Travers herself from birth to extreme old age.

The technique works wonderfully well, from Stace Callaghan as a strangely androgynous new-born baby, gradually losing the secret that the Birth Angel told her about the meaning of life; to Carol Schmidt alternately as prim as Mary Poppins herself, and as a tightly-lidded cauldron of suppressed sexuality as PL; to the wonderfully crazy Wise Woman she becomes in her old age, both critical of her earlier selves and as needy as the baby she threatens to become. Margie Brown-Ash gives the performance of her life here, irritating and loveable but always deeply moving.

It’s a supreme example of a genuine team effort the idea was Leah Mercer’s, she worked on it with local playwright Marcel Dorney, the cast contributed to the script, and Conan Fitzpatrick and Robert D. Clark provided a magical background in both staging and music that brought it all together.

By funding this remarkable production through Arts Queensland, the government has done a great thing, because this is a unique piece of theatre that demonstrates all the possibilities of the genre. It’s original, creative, witty and poignant, and deserves far wider exposure than its four-night season and the limited publicity was able to achieve. Only word-of-mouth filled the seats at the Visy Theatre, but I was pleased to see, on the last night, many members of Brisbane’s theatre community supporting their own.

We need more plays like this, more support for the talent that is too often hidden away in this state, and more publicity so that it can reach a wider audience. It’s no bumbling amateur attempt, but a fully-fledged highly professional production, and it’s the most exciting piece of theatre I’ve seen in Brisbane this year by a long shot.

Directed by Leah Mercer

Lighting & design Conan Fitzpatrick, music composed and performed by Robert D. Clark

Wednesday 17 – Saturday 20 August 2005.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 19th August 2005)