Theatre / “Avenue Q”. At The Q, Queanbeyan, until May 13. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN
ALANA Valentine is a very busy playwright.
Last year Canberra was abuzz with her semi-verbatim play, “Letters to Lindy”, toured here by Merrigong Theatre and dealing with the notorious Lindy Chamberlain case.
That work saw Valentine deep in research at the National Library, but she is no stranger to research although, as she tells “CityNews”, with a degree of modesty: “Playwrights know a little about a lot, but are aided by experts.”
She’s a bit of an expert herself, having won the 2012 Stage International Script Competition in the US for the best new play about science and technology, the 2014 BBC/British Council International Radio Playwriting Competition and, of course, the commission from our own Street Theatre to turn Frank Moorhouse’s mighty novel “Cold Light” into a stage drama.
The central character, ambitious diplomat Edith Campbell Berry, may not be Madame Bovary but she is certainly a woman who is asphyxiated in a man’s world.
“I wasn’t part of the Edith fan club at first,” Valentine tells me as she describes how she had to be “auditioned” by The Street in competition with other playwrights before she won the job in 2013 as part of a Centenary of Canberra push to show Canberra, well, in a new light.
“Of course, I’m an Edith fan now and I think the novel is a masterpiece.”
Briefly, Edith, an early feminist making her way in the League of Nations, returns to Australia during the 1950s from the maelstrom of post-war Europe with her husband, British diplomat Ambrose, expecting to be embraced by the Department of External Affairs. But it is the Menzies era. Women are still expected to keep in their place and there are marriage bans in the public service.
As a working playwright, Valentine needed to get both inside and outside the character of Edith, for nothing bores audiences more than adulation.
“I saw the spine of the novel as a story about a feminist, a strong woman who couldn’t get what she wanted, a suffocated visionary.”
It got Valentine thinking about how Australia deals with visionaries. Gough Whitlam who appears in the play is one, Joern Utzon is another.
Edith is largely fictional although there was a Canadian woman in the League of Nations but it rather tickled Valentine to learn that people often ring the National Library asking for access to Edith’s papers – “they think she’s real”.
“I hope Canberra embraces this play,” Valentine says. She’s heard a nasty rumour that Canberrans prefer escapist musicals to straight plays on serious subjects and, as well, it worries her that TV shows such as “The Code” and “Secret City” were largely made with non-Canberra talent.
“Cold Light” is exciting because it’s all happening in Canberra,” she says, explaining that it is set over 39 years, right up to 1974 and takes in events such as the attempt to ban the Communist Party and Edith’s encounters with Menzies and Sir John Latham.
The play, featuring screen actor Sonia Todd as Edith, is being directed by The Street’s Caroline Stacey with just six actors playing many real life roles and, mysteriously, an appearance by singer Toby Cole.
“Edith is a strong central character, not always likeable, but that’s not important,” Valentine says.
Frank Moorhouse was undoubtedly on her side, she believes, but on the stage we need to see characters’ flaws and, in making the adaptation, it was important to know exactly what she was cutting and why.
“Theatre must keep driving forward like a stone rolling down a hill, I want to grab my audience by the throat,” she says.
“Cold Light”, The Street Theatre, March 4-18. Bookings to thestreet.org.au or 6247 1223.