Theatre, like politics, is not quite as democratic as it looks from the outside; fair representation is more honoured in the breach than the observance, and some voices need serious backing from the throng before they’re allowed into the inner sanctum. Patricia Cornelius has been producing electrifying contemporary theatre for decades, but she is only finally getting main stage representation in the coming year, arguably brought on by her adoring fanbase. She writes flinty, uncompromising plays – plays that hold up Hamlet’s mirror to the audience, so that they might see their flawed and privileged selves.
Her latest play, directed by longtime collaborator Susie Dee, is Big Heart, and it’s as searing, as unforgiving, as anything she’s written. Like virtually everything she pens, it’s political and current, speaking directly to a nation in thrall to its own mythologies. The difference this time is in her embrace of allegory; Big Heart is modern Australian allegory writ large.
Mother (Andrea Swifte) sets out to adopt five babies from five continents. As she explains in her disconcertedly reasonable and measured voice, “I’d have taken six if it weren’t for North America’s prohibitive adoption protocols”. It’s a decision that brooks no opposition; as mother knows, wealth and privilege naturally confer benefits on these children of dubious or negligible parentage, and mother knows best. She takes Daniela (Elmira Jurik) first, from Asia. Then Edward (Vuyo Loko) from Africa, Elizabeth (Kasia Kaczmarek) from central Europe, Charles (Sermsah Bin Saad) from Australia and Charlotte (Daniela Farinacci) from South America. She raises them, and they are hers.
Like all children, they grow and draw on her reserves of energy and compassion. She loves them – of course she loves them, they’re her children – but she also gets tired of their defiance and ingratitude. They seem to have their own ideas about what is best for them, from Daniela’s decision to take skin-lightening pills to Charlotte’s insistence on finding her birth mother. It’s as if they don’t fully appreciate Mother’s magnanimity. It feels as if her authority is being undermined.
Mother is clearly an allegory of Australia itself, although Cornelius is clever enough to avoid tedious moralising by giving her great reserves of humanity and awareness. It isn’t exactly self-awareness, but it complicates the picture considerably. This is no Gina Rinehart, devouring her progeny when her funds prove insufficient; Swifte brings a sense of weary nobility to her role, with a stately deliver that’s rigid as a metronome. If it’s faintly disturbing, like a lecture on motherhood delivered from the grave, it’s also shot through with kindness and consideration. The kids, in contrast, are lively and individualistic, capable of spite and surliness, but never less than believable. It makes for compassionate and nuanced allegory, which is a rare thing indeed.
Not that the play is perfect. Cornelius has a tendency to make pat or simplistic cultural reductions precisely when she is most critical of them, and is strangely weakest with her Aboriginal character, Charlie. He has a monologue very late in the piece that is the only moment of unadulterated didacticism in the play, but it is telling. He lectures mother for indulging and spoiling him, therefore cutting him off from his cultural heritage, a heritage Cornelius defines as necessarily adrift from contemporary Australian life. It’s patronising, at best.
In moments like this, one gets the sense that the production is improving the play. The design is brilliant. Marg Horwell has delivered for Cornelius and Dee before, with Savages and Shit, and this is true to form; her vast swathe of blood-red carpet and cheeky hints of Victoriana, coupled with that imposing family portrait, lend the production a Cronenbergian or Lynchian unease. Rachel Burke’s lighting is also suitably gothic and creepy, subtly augmenting the choral effect of the shared dialogue. The children often seem like demented marionettes in this space, struggling against mother’s firmly controlled strings.
Dee’s direction is exemplary; she directs other people’s material with virtuosic power – her steering of Influx’s Animal last year in this space is a perfect example – but her work with Cornelius is so simpatico it feels uncanny. She wrestles the play’s wildly discordant and fabulously subversive tendencies into something uniform and convincing. If Cornelius is our most political playwright, someone who wears her conviction on her sleeve, then Dee is the person who seems best placed to bring her work to fruition.
Big Heart may be an excursion from Cornelius and Dee’s regular oeuvre, but it’s a rare chance to see an ancient literary technique in the service of something so immediately relevant. It’s also the perfect primer for bigger things to come, given her presence in Melbourne Festival this year and her debut on MTC's main stage in 2018.