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Inside the Poppins' psyche

Stephen Carleton

Stephen Carleton is the winner of the 2004 Patrick White Prize, for his play Constance Drinkwater.

Stace Callaghan and Margi Brown Ash, The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of 
Mary Poppins Stace Callaghan and Margi Brown Ash, The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of
Mary Poppins
photo Juanita Broderick
In a year in which Queensland celebrates the centenary of the women’s vote, theatrical testimonials to a renegade feminist history in the state have been surprisingly few and far between. Sue Rider’s The Matilda Women springs to mind as an earlier contribution. With such offerings to the national body politic over recent decades as Lady Flo, conservative socialite/mayoress Sally Ann Atkinson and a certain red-headed rightwing firebrand and ballroom dancer, turning to the world of letters by way of inspiration seems a much more edifying option for contemporary performance makers. Whatever the gender or political hue, Queensland undeniably does a fine line in radical individualism and it is fitting, then, that the determinedly eccentric P L Travers (creator of the character Mary Poppins) should have emerged from federation era rural Queensland. As theatreACTIV8’s production The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of Mary Poppins asserts, the home-grown cultural milieu certainly gave Travers something to run passionately away from in the long trajectory that was her gloriously idiosyncratic life.

Taking Valerie Lawson’s biography Out of the Sky She Came as a departure point, director Leah Mercer pooled a strong ensemble, including writer Marcel Dorney and actors Margi Brown Ash, Stace Callaghan and Carol Schmidt to create a unique performance experience in which theatreACTIV8’s bold physical sensibility combines effectively with Dorney’s dialogue driven text. The actors each inhabit an aspect of Travers’ female (if not always avowedly feminist) psyche: a triptych Travers herself describes as comprising nymph, mother and crone. The cast glide effortlessly between these constructions at various points of Travers’ cantankerous life, intruding upon and contradicting each other’s sketchy and subjective accounts of her narrative.

Particularly intriguing in this regard is Travers’ complicated relationship with men, who, if women are assigned 3 basic archetypes, might also be correspondingly described as either genius, father or fool. Certainly, her first major love interest, the Irish poet ‘A.E’ is nominated by Travers as the former; whilst mystic, Gurdjieff, might be considered any of the above; and studio chief, Walt Disney, absolutely the latter if not the former. Callaghan in particular does a fine job of animating Dorney’s amusing popinjays and patriarchs, creating the chilling sense of a fourth (male) actor in the ensemble (whom I was faintly disarmed not to find appearing in the curtain call).

The famous Poppins iconography—umbrella, starched blouse and long skirt (equally at home in the Kransky Sisters’ Esk Valley mise en scene) and crisp uber British consonants and nasal vowels—wend their way with marked constraint into the performance text. Poppins-esque gewgaws hang from Celtic wiccan-like totems in Conan Fitzpatrick’s initially intriguing (but ultimately under-utilised) scenic design. Schmidt’s Poppins only occasionally utters the iconic “spit spot!” and the overall effect is aptly one in which the complex personality that created Poppins, rather than Poppins herself, takes centre stage. Indeed, as Ash Brown’s wonderfully world weary crone suggests, it was never a matter of having ‘created’ her at all, but of allowing her to descend, enigmatically, from the ether. Robert D Clark’s evocative and jaunty sound design is worthy of special mention here by way of invocation.

There was much to like about The Great Exception. With an all too brief 4-day run, this rough gem, with a little further polishing, deserves a second appearance before a wider audience.

theatreACTIV8, The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of Mary Poppins, director Leah Mercer, writer Marcel Dorney; Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, August 17-20

Stephen Carleton is the winner of the 2004 Patrick White Prize, for his play Constance Drinkwater.

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 36

© Stephen Carleton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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