For much of our history, post European settlement, Australia’s greatest music & literature has tended towards a reflective melancholia. Much of it steeped in the yearning for something that has passed us by whilst we have been oblivious to it, too busy railing against our current seemingly unsatisfactory circumstances.
Sue Smith’s latest play, Hydra, certainly runs true to this pattern.
The commonly accepted version of events surrounding the desperately heart-wrenching story of writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, Australia’s ill-fated literary soulmates whose wild destructive passion for each other burned an indelible impression into our natural psyche, is challenged in Smith’s play which is currently being performed by the State Theatre Company at the Dunstan Playhouse.
Smith looks at the story of the two doomed idealists through a post-feminist lens which viciously excoriates Johnston. He is depicted here as an unlikeable, egomaniacal and boorish drunk who forces his talented partner, Clift, to ultimately martyr herself for the sake of his art, as he continually chips away at her self-esteem and will to persevere at her own craft. Ultimately, Johnston, in achieving his ambition to write the ‘great Australian novel’ represses Clift’s own ambitions and desires to the point where she cannot bear to keep going.
There is clearly a parallel here between the two main Australian protagonists and another pair of doomed literary lovers, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Hughes has often been painted as the monster who also ultimately destroyed his gifted partner’s will to live.
Through the use of a series of direct, lyrical quotations from both Johnston’s Clean Straw For Nothing and Clift’s Peel Me A Lotus, Smith reminds us that, similar to Plath and Hughes, this couple’s irresistible black hole of a relationship, was also, albeit tragically, the prerequisite for the creation of their finest works.
The play is set on the Greek island of Hydra, to where the two Australians retreated as they sought release from the oppressiveness of conformity and obligation.
There they assume they have found the required freedom to write ‘real’ literature, as opposed to the more journalistic and populist writing they had previously been producing. Their assumption, as it turns out, is far from correct and the story unfolds as their initial hopes, dreams and aspirations undergo unexpected transmutation.
Vilma Mattila’s simple set, conjures up a scene akin to those depicted in the photography of the Johnstons’ friend, the photo-journalist James Burke, who took hundreds of shots of the couple whilst they were on Hydra. Mattila’s plain white walls, stairs and arches are accurately suggestive of the island’s villas, tavernas and seafronts, and the fixed set also gives the actors a versatile backdrop to work with as their characters’ fiery passions bristle and burn.
To add pathos to the story, Smith has it unfold through the gentle reflections and reminiscences of the couple’s son, Martin.
Martin grew up to be a poet, and we discover, sadly, that he speaks to us from beyond the grave. He, too, has seemingly long since succumbed to his genetic predisposition for dissatisfaction and has allowed an overpowering sense of weltschmerz to claim him.
Nathan O’Keefe plays Martin with a deft sensitivity, and the son’s selective editorialising, delivered in a deeply, affectionate and forgiving tone, provides an emotive and much needed contrast to the often abrasive bickering of his parents.
Bryan Probets turns in a powerful performance as George Johnston, the acerbically witty ex-war correspondent who steadily descends into a state of alcoholically enhanced tuberculosis as he strives to write his masterpiece. Probets convincingly depicts Johnston’s compulsions and possessiveness which perversely delivers to him what he wants most whilst simultaneously destroying what he he loves most.
Anna McGahan’s depiction of Clift is, however, not so convincing or consistent. There are some poignant and powerful moments in her performance but, at other times, when she delivers her lines, we hear an actor’s recitation, not a believable Clift, and too often the timbre of McGahan’s voice causes the words to disappear beneath the sound of the incidental music and the voices of other cast members.
Hugh Parker as Vic, an acclaimed Australian painter who is a close friend of George & Charmian, gives solid support but the character is never really required to push any emotional boundaries.
Vic’s wife, Ursula, is played by Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, who shines in this role, providing a character in direct contrast to Clift – someone who is more happily willing to renounce her own ambition in order for her partner to achieve his potential as an artist.
Ursula’s farewell scene, as she leaves Hydra, is particularly memorable, played by Lyndall-Knight with calm assertive understatement.
Rounding out the main ensemble, Kevin Spink produces a wonderfully chameleonic acting display portraying Jean-Claude, the French Lothario, as well as being believable as various Greek characters who work on the island.
Overall, Hydra is a powerful depiction of a story that is hugely important to our cultural identity. The novel, My Brother Jack, written at the height of the couple’s slow deterioration, has become a national treasure – and being able observe the pain of its genesis only serves to underscore its greatness. But this intimate look at the process of its creation does come at great cost in this version of the tale, as we are forced to watch one of our literary heroes metamorphosing into a monster.
Even though the play had some flaws and a few annoyingly abrasive moments it did, undeniably, move me and I left the theatre overcome by a deep sense of melancholia that lasted for quite awhile.
Despite my resistance, I sensed something had shifted irrevocably in my attitude to both Johnston and Clift’s work as a result of experiencing this slice of revisionist history.
And, no matter how hard I tried, the words to the lament, Spanish Ladies, featured heavily in the play, would not leave my head all the way home!
Now let ev’ry man drink off his full bumper,
And let ev’ry man drink off his full glass;
We’ll drink and be jolly
And drown melancholy,
And here’s to the health of each true-hearted lass…
Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain…
Hydra is being performed at the Dunstan Playhouse from May 1 to May 19, 2019.
Tickets are available HERE.