The sisters reminisce - L to R - Miranda Tapsell as Nona, Leah Purcell as Cressy and Shari Sebbens as Mae. Photography by Brett Boardman
Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 13.01.15
Location: Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney
Is this restaging of Louis Nowra's 'Radiance' an 'Aboriginal play'? Is it a snap-shot of real life as three half sisters whose lives have kept them apart are brought theatrically together for their mutual mother's funeral; or is it magic realism, as critic Paul McGillick insisted on its first outing for Belvoir in 1993? Is it a 'classic' as director and actor Leah Purcell claims in the new text published by Currency Press, or is it the contrived vehicle for three 'Aboriginal' actresses (two of whom had requested its writing by Nowra) as was the majority critical view in 1993 – sub-Chekhov in a beat-up old Queenslander beside the muddy sea-flats that lead to a significant island?
Or was it, just possibly, Louis Nowra's debt repayment to that great actor, Justine Saunders, with whom he was in a relationship at the time of writing, who must have shared some key insights into Aboriginal life and culture?
More questions than answers, really. Though there was a really warm response at the end of the performance I attended, relief perhaps that the secrets and lies built into the plot had finally been revealed – provoked though they were by a particularly unappealing description of the youngest sister, Nona's imagined night of lust with her missing (and mythical) father, the Black Prince. Somehow the pink-wigged Miranda Tapsell retained her down-to-earth joie de vivre as she tackled this speech – a skill that had frequently been the saving grace of earlier explicatory scenes that go through the motions of establishing how Mae (Shari Sebbens), the grumpy nurse who drew the short straw of caring for their demented mother, and Cressy (Purcell), the opera singer who thought she'd escaped her history in Britain are both related and isolated at the same time.
But did Cressy make her escape via the nuns who seem to have taken her on in her teens – a Stolen child or wayward one that Mum was only too happy to off-load? The text and the production don't really make it clear – as might have been the case if Purcell's theory that it's not really an 'Aboriginal' play is correct. And if that is the case, should she have employed colour-blind casting to make her case?
But that would still have left the issue of the island. For the girls' great grand-parents were said to have been dispossessed of this island back in the 19th Century – which surely suggests Aboriginal possession? Certainly that's how Nona plays it throughout, determined that Mum's ashes be returned to her Country after a disappointing funeral attended only by her three offspring. And is it just possible that her selection of a Radiance liquorice tin as the symbolic container of those ashes hints at their Black inner nature?
So, we have the flawed threesome – the elegant Cressy has had a voice breakdown, daggy Mae has been de-nursed for theft and spunky Nona has lived a life jumping from bed to bed – and a mother who offered no guidance as to how their lives might have been lived, who lived in the beach house where her “one true love” may have given her physical comfort but never intended to give her cause to wear the wedding-dress she had hidden away. What a wonderful trope, then, that Mae dons and bedraggles it as they cross the mud-flats and watch the faithless man's house burn to ashes as they attempt to put her ghost and their pasts behind them.
Plenty of grist to the mill, and a decent production by Purcell. But I suspect the greatest point of interest for an elder of the tribe of critics like myself is the history of the play in which that original cast used their performances in roles written by an experienced playwright – Nowra had broader writing skills than pioneering Aboriginal story-tellers such as Jack Davis, Bobby Merritt and Kevin Gilbert – to reveal “a deep array of emotions that we could sink our teeth into”, as Rhoda Roberts put it in a recent interview. And from their on-stage presences, Roberts went on to become Australia's premier Indigenous festival director, Lydia Miller runs the Aboriginal Arts Board of Ozco, and Rachael Maza directs Melbourne's Ilbijerri Theatre Company.
Incidentally, Roberts was able to use the Olympic Dreaming Festival in 1997 to give Leah Purcell her breakthrough in the biographical 'Box the Pony'.
Grumpy Mae snarls at spunky Nona in Louis Nowra's Radiance at the Belvoir Theatre. Photo by Brett Boardman