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two lives, one storm

sandra thibodeaux: sarah cathcart and nicola fearn’s tracy

Sandra Thibodeaux is Executive Officer of the NT Writer’s Centre, Darwin.

Samantha Chalmers, Nicola Fearn, Tracy Samantha Chalmers, Nicola Fearn, Tracy
photo Fiona Morrison
CYCLONE TRACY WAS AUSTRALIA’S WORST NATURAL DISASTER, A NATIONAL SHOCK THAT HAS NEVER BEEN FORGOTTEN. IT VIRTUALLY ERADICATED AN ENTIRE CITY AND DESTROYED MANY LIVES. WOVEN FROM THREADS OF STORYTELLING, MOVEMENT, MUSIC, EXQUISITE PUPPETRY AND MASK, SARAH CATHCART AND NICOLA FEARN’S TRACY IS AN INTRICATE TAPESTRY IN WHICH EACH PANEL REVEALS A NEW EPISODE IN THE INTERTWINING LIVES OF TWO VERY DIFFERENT WOMEN. FOR REASONS AS CONTRASTING AS IT IS POSSIBLE TO IMAGINE, BOTH FIND THEMSELVES IN DARWIN ON CHRISTMAS EVE 1974, CELEBRATING WITH THEIR FAMILIES IN THEIR HOMES AND CHURCHES AS, OUT ON THE DARK SEA, A SMALL BUT INTENSE CYCLONE TURNS TO RIP THE HEART OUT OF THEIR CITY.

Based on research amongst cyclone survivors and some autobiographical detail, Tracy focusses more on the personal than the apocalyptic. The cyclone gets its moment, the drama eloquently and elegantly relayed through lyrical movement, text and the manipulation of a model house. However, it is the human stories that give this intimate presentation its power.

The story of Yanyuwa woman, Aunty Hilda Muir, a respected Territory writer, provides half the play’s material. Related by her granddaughter, dynamic actor and dancer Samantha Chalmers, Hilda’s story begins near the Gulf community of Borroloola where she is born to a Yanyuwa woman and an unknown white father. When there’s a murder on Vanderlin Island, the authorities take the opportunity to remove Hilda from her community and send her to Darwin. The journey is described with a sense of wonder and ironic humour—the horse ride to Mataranka, the 500km train ride to Darwin in cattle trucks and finally being left, lonely and starving, in the Kahlin Compound, a dormitory for Stolen Generation children.

This quintessentially Australian story is juxtaposed with that of Nicola Fearn, Tracy’s co- writer and the co-performer in this two-hander. Born in England and raised in a country mansion, Fearn flees England with her mother after her family is declared bankrupt. At the age of 15, she finds herself in Australia where “grown men wear shorts!” and it is here, after a stint in Tennant Creek, that she too takes her place in Darwin as the cyclone nears.

The contrasting of these two stories is undoubtedly the most successful dramaturgical element of this work, possibly best demonstrated when Samantha’s story of her grandmother’s epic horse ride through Arnhem Land (led by a policeman towards captivity) is set against Fearn’s exhilarating first experience of leaping her pony over fields and hedgerows in an English county hunt. That these two people should a short time later share the destructive violence of a Darwin cyclone is both a marvellous example of life’s inconsistencies and a stirring theatrical moment.

The arrival of Cyclone Tracy and the devastation that ensues provides an extremely moving sequence of scenes. Given the power of this central narrative, the subplot involving a more recent cyclone, Monica, is a distracting addition, throwing up one of the challenges of drawing material from one’s own life—what to keep; what to discard.

The complementary skills and energies of the two actors make for compelling viewing. Under the precise, creative direction of Sarah Cathcart, Chalmers and Fearn have developed a synergy that tangibly fills the stage. The earthy humour and perceptiveness of Fearn’s narration perfectly balances the lyricism of Chalmer’s almost danced style of delivery.

While a more thoughtful and perhaps poetic approach to the text would have been welcome, this is finely crafted and textured theatre. This is obvious from the very first moments of the play where puppetry and maskwork alternate—both exquisitely precise, both filled with artistry. The one puppet in Tracy represents the child Hilda in moments of silent anguish, often manipulated by both performers at once and with such delicacy that it becomes truly life-like.

Designed simply and with touring in mind by Louise McCarthy and sensitively lit by Brad Voss, the production is supported by an evocative soundtrack composed by Kim Baston. This production has already successfully toured, as part of the innovative Theatre to the Edge program, to Cairns, Townsville and Mackay, as well as to Alice Springs and country venues throughout the Northern Territory. The show is accessible and humorous; it’s heartfelt but reinforced with the narrative strength of human experience. Cyclone Tracy has passed into the national psyche. This show, which tells the story behind the tragedy, will have resonances for Australians everywhere.


Business Unusual Theatre/Darwin Theatre Company, Tracy, writers Sarah Cathcart, Nicola Fearn with stories by Yanyuwa woman, Hilda Muir, director Sarah Cathcart, performers Nicola Fearn, Samantha Chalmers, design Louise McCarthy, dramaturg Hannie Rayson, composer Kim Baston, puppet direction Nicola Fearn, lighting Brad Voss; Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin, May 28-June 8

Sandra Thibodeaux is Executive Officer of the NT Writer’s Centre, Darwin.

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 12

© Sandra Thibodeaux; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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