Tessa goes back to India

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DIRECTOR and playwright Tessa Bremner is a well-known figure in Canberra. A resident here for many years, she directed plays for Canberra Philharmonic, Eureka Theatre and The Playhouse, as well as writing her own plays, notably one in 1992 called “Hot Property,” focusing on a female Greens politician.

A professional dancer in London before migrating to Australia, she was praised for the movement and the choreography and her productions. She once even coached former Federal Treasurer John Kerin before he handed down his Budget speech.

After moving to Wagga Wagga, where she now lives, to become a lecturer at the Charles Sturt University, Bremner  continued to return to the ACT regularly, directing for Free Rain Theatre, teaching  at the ANU School of Music and most publicly as the director of the well-known touring company Co*Opera.

Although she has long since left Charles Sturt, she and her husband, the musician and producer Ian Macdonald, have staged many productions together under the aegis of their company, Crooked Mirror Productions.

Anyone who knows Bremner knows of her fastidiousness and “Englishness”, for she was born in India, a child of the Raj, and still retains a quality of gentility to which most of us can only aspire.

Now she’s harnessing that in a new play called “The Dark Side of Midnight,” to be staged by Anne Somes for Free Rain Theatre that is being billed as “Exotic Thriller! Love, lust, betrayal and obsession.”

Gentility? Love, lust, betrayal? In 2009, Bremner discovered her mother’s letters from India to her parents, full of amazing real stories written “with humour, frustration, joy and insight.” As well as being the source of information about life as a British Raj wife before Partition, they revealed to Bremner her mother’s sense of loss on returning to England.

Salman Rushdie may well have written with some affection of “midnight’s children”, the children born in India at midnight, August 15, 1947, precisely when it was divided into India and Pakistan, but Bremner looks at the dark side of that huge historical event, as the migration of people was beginning and  panic and violence were emerging.

Veering between 1946-7 in India and 1967 in Sussex, England, the play takes us inside the house of a typical British Raj family, where a young wife, Geraldine, played by Lainie Hart, sees her life eroding rapidly.

In act one, the crowds outside are shouting for the colonialists to “quit India,” while inside, death comes to a member of the family unexpectedly. The second part takes place 20 years later in Sussex at a boarding house run by Geraldine. Enoch Powell is raging against immigration and once again the political events in India follow Geraldine. Though there is much humour in the play, the ending is very dramatic.

Bremner, who  says she has tried to capture  the lives of such English people living abroad, has been researching the play for several years, even returning in 2010 to India to find the place of her birth and to Cambridge University, where she found her the diaries and letters of her father, who had been a linguist, soldier, diplomat and adventurer in the North West Frontier region.

“My mother didn’t talk much about her time in India,” Bremner says, “but …there were cushions, decorated artefacts, photographs and rugs, including a terrifying tiger that lay on the drawing room floor.”

As a young girl, Bremner met people such as the character Mrs Coke-Symonds in the play when she went to the British India Society’s annual lunch with her mother. Later, through the letters, she reconstructed a society where discussions revolved around making new gowns for hunt balls and the difficulty of retaining servants.

She has been workshopping the play with director Anne Somes for most of 2011. The cast is  a good, tight one – Lainie Hart, Josh Wiseman, Eliza Bell, Brian Kavanagh and Andrea Close. But now, speaking to me by phone from Adelaide where she’s putting the finishing touches to an overseas touring production for Co*Opera, Bremner is starting to feel rather exposed.  “I hope people will understand the Englishness,” she says.

“The Dark Side of Midnight”, Courtyard Studio, October 28-29, November 3-6, Nov 10-13.  Bookings to 6275

Author Tess Bremner.


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