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who would consider me mad now?

kathryn kelly: leah mercer, margi brown ash, eve

Kathryn Kelly is a freelance dramaturg based in Brisbane and a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland.

Moshio, Margi Brown Ash, EVE Moshio, Margi Brown Ash, EVE
photo Benjamin Bray
EVE, A THEATRICAL MEMOIR OF AUSTRALIAN NOVELIST EVE LANGLEY, IS THE LATEST PERFORMANCE WORK DEVISED BY THE LONG-TERM COLLABORATORS IN THE NEST ENSEMBLE. INITIALLY CONCEIVED WITH BRISBANE THEATRE STALWART AND SADLY MISSED DIRECTOR DOUG LEONARD AND HIS PARTNER, DESIGNER ANNA FAIRLEY, EVE IS NOW VERY MUCH IN THE HOUSE STYLE OF THE NEST. AS WITH THEIR PREVIOUS PRODUCTION, THE KNOWING OF MARY POPPINS, BASED ON THE LIFE OF PL TRAVERS, THE AUDIENCE IS INVITED TO ‘READ’ AND ASSESS THE LIFE OF A SIGNIFICANT AND MISUNDERSTOOD FEMALE AUSTRALIAN ARTIST.

Eve Langley’s life is representative of the experience of many female Australian artists of the1940s: brave and bold, with freedom as their leitmotif. Langley’s most famous novel, The Pea-Pickers (1942), is her autobiographical account of adopting a male persona, Steve, in order to go fruit picking with her sister in the Gippsland region. Unfortunately, the price of such artistic and personal liberty was excruciating: poverty, domestic drudgery and madness. Langley’s work and her life became increasingly florid and disassociated, and by the late 1940s she had formally changed her name by deed poll to that of her hero, Oscar Wilde. Like Janet Frame, Langley spent years in an asylum, only to be rescued by her sister in 1956. She was found dead in her remote hut in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains in 1974, her face eaten by rats.

EVE opens with a few key propositions. A ghostly Eve greets the audience, demanding, “Would you consider me mad now? Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The haunting central image of the work is the prone body of Margi Brown Ash as the three-week old corpse of Eve Langley, her incandescent face tilting back slowly to reveal a “mouthful of planets.” The other figures are caught in Ash’s orbit; they are her hallucinations rather than separate entities. The male violinist Moshio accompanies the singsong poetry of the text with a score by Travis Ash. Stace Callaghan is perched directly above the life-sized bush hut that dominates the stage, as the child-muse narrating the well-known Oscar Wilde short story, The Selfish Giant.

What EVE captures exquisitely is the pain of Langley’s life, particularly the years leading up to her committal, with three young children, no money and a wayward painter for a husband. Ash’s caramel voice and whirling dervish performance energy is infused with danger and intensity in the passages of the piece that focus on these years, where Langley, like Ash herself, was trying to juggle the demands of young children and her artistic calling. This is the distinctive aesthetic of The Nest Ensemble at its best: autobiographical and literary, archetypal and sensual, like a warm bath of emotion and word. There are no sharp edges or raw blisters.

If there are any criticisms to be made of the show they exist generally around this sort of memoir theatre. Like the polite, hushed tones of a panel at a writers’ festival, there were moments where the literary overwhelmed the performative and the reverent elegy snuffed out the blowsy and exuberant wildness of Langley’s life and writing. Langley’s vocation, to write the mythic Australian landscape, was evoked by a sequence involving a chalk map on the back wall of the Sue Benner Theatre and a list of Langley’s works. Homage was paid and dutifully noted but Langley’s driving compulsion was being described rather than experienced. I should acknowledge, though, that in the performance I attended Moshio had to leave the stage with a broken string and so I saw a show with the vital performance element of the soundscape missing.

Yet the sense of literary and metaphoric remove was also reinforced by the design. The dominating bush hut, filled with the naturalistic props of Langley as an aging recluse, read as Australiana rather than interiority. Placing and containing Stace Callaghan in the balcony, unable to move, akin to the dead body of Langley, neutralised her powerful performance energy. The decision to foreground the words of Oscar Wilde felt like another literary frame. Langley had her own male alter ego, Steve, one she inhabited in life and recreated in her novels. However, EVE exploded theatrically when the autobiography of a performer’s body intersected with the literary and historical story of Langley. It felt like a missed opportunity not to experience that with Callaghan too. Perhaps the danger of consistency is that your accomplishments become the norm. Criticism aside, EVE is a deftly directed and beautifully constructed account of an important Australian artist’s life.


The Nest Ensemble, EVE, writer, co-deviser Margi Brown Ash, director, co-deviser Leah Mercer, performers Margi Brown Ash, Stace Callaghan, Moshio, co-deviser Daniel Evans, composer Travis Ash, design Backwoods Original, lighting Genevieve Trace, costumes Kate White; The Independents, Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts, May 9-26

Kathryn Kelly is a freelance dramaturg based in Brisbane and a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland.

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 44

© Kathryn Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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