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A Turkish-Australian dilemma

Antonia Baldo talks to Keith Gallasch

Antonia Baldo Antonia Baldo
photo Lisa Giles
Antonia Baldo is a young Australian who went to London 5 years ago as a student filmmaker. Doctor Akar’s Women is her first play, derived from a film script that never made it to the screen and expanded for its stage life with the expert encouragement of Griffin Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, Ros Horin, for their 2001 Carnivale contribution.

Doctor Akar’s Women is a great read, a deftly constructed, acerbic account of the lives of second generation, middle class Turkish-Australians. The central figure is the general practitioner Doctor Harry Akar, adrift in a cultural limbo, obsessed with the suicide of his father when Akar was 12. Nominally patriarchs, both men are lost in the female world that encompasses them and in which love is a mystery. If the father suffered its withdrawal by his wife, then Akar has refused it to his wife and daughter. In his despair the father turned to a yearning for Turkey, wearing the curled-up-toe shoes—“picked up at the boutique outside Adelaide”—ballooning trousers, praying—“he’d wander round with a compass trying to decide which direction Mecca was in this week”. Less ostensibly, Akar repeats the ritual but only in private and only in a brief, repeated dance, his arms outstretched, says Baldo, “like the wings of an eagle.” When Akar’s medical student daughter baulks at surgical practice on corpses, her career is threatened, and when he encounters an intriguing female patient who has lost her love for life, the doctor’s world is destined for change.

Asked if she knows a man like Doctor Akar, Antonia Baldo says, “I don’t really want to say. He seems to me very real, and he still is a really charismatic guy. He was a political activist in the 60s. I know myself that when I really believe in something I want to act, rather than sit in a pub and talk about it. I’m not like that but I’d love to be, and he would as well, and to care enough. The actor playing him is so right, I can’t bear it sometimes.”

Akar is cruel, he’s blunt and people are blunt back, but he usually has the upper hand. And the playwright, equally, treats her protagonist cruelly. “I don’t think about it. He really has to have his heart broken in the hardest way. She’s the kind of woman [his patient] he’d fall in love with—to make it hard on himself.”

Baldo is not Turkish. Her grandmother on her father’s side was conceived in Italy, born in Broken Hill, and given the middle name “Australia”; Baldo’s mother is English. Although she won’t go into detail, she says the play is autobiographical: “It is a family thing. I’ve cunningly disguised some of my Italian relatives.”

Why a Turkish family, not Italian? Baldo travelled in Turkey, became fascinated with it—“the landscape felt a lot like Australia, it’s huge and got such a mythic feel to it”—and now lives in a London suburb with a large Turkish population. “We did a short film and had to talk to a lot of people in the Turkish community. When I wanted to check on anything in the play I’d run down to the corner shop and ask the guy to verify facts and names and where people came from.” Because of its 2 generational remove from Turkey, the play doesn’t depend on elaborating cultural detail, but what’s there is evocative. Recollections are most likely to be of stories handed down from first generation migrant parents about their younger years in Australia, tales that have acquired the status and mystique of myth. Of her own family Baldo says, “Nothing tangible or enormous has been passed down. I would love it if there had been, to cling to for a sense of place and history. Though the risk is you can end up romanticising like Harry.” One of the joys of Doctor Akar’s Women is the telling and subsequent testing of a particular family myth.

Antonia Baldo has been working on a feature film which, all being well, starts shooting next May. And she’s writing another play, having enjoyed this experience so far. As for her relationship to Australia, “I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I was back, but there’s something about the distance that has made it easier. I find it hard to write anything set in England...everything I imagine is in the form of Australia and set in the middle of nowhere. There’s no middle of nowhere in England.”

Doctor Akar’s Women should be a rich experience. It’s a tough, naturalistic, often cruelly funny play about love over which death ever hovers. And it’s one of the few plays of recent years that goes beyond-the-suitcase to deal with the dilemmas lived out by the children of migrants.

Griffin Theatre Company, Doctor Akar’s Women, by Antonia Baldo, director Ros Horin, designer Catherine Raven; cast: Ana Maria Belo, Sandro Colarelli, Laura Lattuada, Angela Punch McGregor, Slava Orel, Inga Romantsova, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, George Sais; Carnivale 2001, The Stables, Sydney, October 5-10

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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