By Stephen Carleton
Bille Brown Studio, South Brisbane
From ghosties and ghoulies, and creepies and crawlies, and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us.
Perhaps it’s because the local priest is Irish that the good Lord isn’t listening to the old Scottish prayer, for Somerset, one of those doomed 19th century settlements in northern Queensland founded by idealistic white people who were probably in it for God, gold and glory, is rapidly becoming a ghost town, and the ghoulies are out in force. And let’s not even mention the things that go bump in the night.
Fever is raging in the rapidly diminishing community; Captain Wilberforce Drinkwater, the Government Resident, is dead; and so are five of his seven daughters, who were named for the Seven Heavenly Virtues – Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Justice, Temperance and Prudence. Only Hope and Fortitude are left, and I’m not giving away too much of the plot if I tell you that Hope, rather than springing eternal, is dead, leaving only the aptly-named Fortitude to face the world with her mother, the redoubtable Constance, who prefers to be known as Lady Drinkwater.
The ironic nomenclature in this fascinating script is not just theological. In a starving settlement where only the rain can be relied upon, the name Drinkwater has resonances that weave their way in and out of the text, and the more we see Father Angelico, the more we appreciate the playwright’s burning satirical touch. After making a first favourable impression, Professor Crabbe begins to live up to his name, especially when he decides to drink brandy and tea instead of water, and as for Lady Drinkwater, her Christian name is not the only constant element of her personality.
Caroline Kennison is a formidable Lady D, imperious and seemingly passionless, and on opening night, when her deadly secret was finally revealed, the surprise among the audience was almost palpable. She seems to hold the play together in the same way as she holds the community, by maintaining standards and distancing herself from the chaos, but when the truth is revealed and she too falls to pieces, so does the community, and the play ends on a note of pure terror.
This play won the 2004 Patrick White Award, and with its ambiguous dialogue, strangely twisting and turning plot, and cast of Gothic characters, I’m sure the Late Great Nobel Prize winner would have approved of the choice. It’s the kind of play that keeps you on the edge of your seat, not least because in the first hour you have no idea where it’s going. Everyone I spoke to at interval had the same reaction- “I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen!”
Neither could I, and I was torn between wanting to get to the end to see how Carleton was going to tie up his convoluted plot, themes and characters; and simply wanting it never to end because it was such a stunning production.
Bruce McKinven’s set was drawn out across the great sweep of the stage in the Bille Brown Theatre in the same way as the plot was drawn out and the characters stretched to snapping point. Matt Scott and Brett Collery’s sound-and-lightscape of the opening Sturm und Drang interrupted the seeming peace of the upper-class drawing room with hints of horrors to come. The dead-white makeup of the two surviving daughters not only made their faces look as if they were powdered with the white arsenic that 18th court ladies used, but also provided another clue, for those who had eyes to see, to the final revelation.
Although all the characters are standard types rather than realistic people, the power of the actors makes them come alive as individuals. Caroline Kennison is in fine form as Lady D, hiding her Machiavellian behaviour under a cold brittle cloak, and her barely-concealed antagonism towards the Chinese merchant Hop Lee makes a mockery of her philosophical commitment to a racially harmonious new colony. Robert Coleby is the professor who comes to seek refuge from the storm, at first the only figure of stability in the frenzied atmosphere of the little community, but soon descending into male dominance and eventual collapse as he comes more and more under Lady D’s spell.
Drunken Irish priests who lose their wits as well as their moral scruples when removed from the constraints of society are two-a-penny in European literature, but Michael Futcher makes Father Angelico a figure of fear as much as of fun, and he suggests in his performance the dreadful possibilities of virtue corrupted. The only sane person in this strange sextet is Hop Lee, the Chinese merchant, played by Darren Yap. This is an exquisitely-controlled performance which revels through Yap’s demeanour as well as the text the ultimate irony of the plot – that the only truly civilised person is the outsider, the racial misfit who is despised by all the white settlers but who is the only one who survives, and that through his personal integrity rather than good luck.
And so to the daughters, frightened and frightening little waifs in their lace nightgowns, their faces rendered almost featureless by their flat white makeup. It’s difficult for adults to play children without making it look fake, but Emily Tomlins (Hope) and Jodie Le Vesconte (Fortitude) keep us guessing all the way through as they cling together like two halves of a single soul. Are they about to become ghosts as their five older sisters have? What do their visions and forebodings really mean? Have they scratched through that thin skin between the real world and the world of dead? And what has happened to them in real life, apart from the multiple deaths in their family, that has turned them into semi-changelings? Tomlins and Le Vesconte are very convincing in these roles, close enough in character to be sisters, but different enough in personality for us to be able to accept them as individuals rather than as simply a pair.
To mix Gothic nightmare with real Australian history and psychological drama is a big task, but Stephen Carleton has succeeded admirably. This is one of the most exciting new plays I’ve seen for a long time and, as a production, a commingling of text, direction, design and acting that adds up to a sure-fire winner. Make sure you see it.
Director Marion Potts, designer Bruce McKinven, lighting designer Matt Scott, sound designer Brett Collery
Playing 10 July – 5 August 2006: Tuesday at 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm
Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, with one interval