Theatre, like all art forms, is a medium through which artists can – and should – present stories about the people in society that most middle-class, theatre-going audiences would seldom encounter. Why, then, do we hardly ever see on-stage representations of some of the most marginalised people in Australia – women trapped in cycles of poverty and abuse? Perhaps the realities of their lives, and the economic inequality that exists in this country, is something that many of us simply would rather not face.
It’s for this very reason that the artists behind Caravan are some of Australia’s most important contemporary theatre-makers. This two-woman domestic drama is helmed by long-time collaborators Susie Dee (who plays Judy, the mother), Nicci Wilks (Donna, her daughter) and Patricia Cornelius as the co-writer, teaming up with three other Melbourne playwrights – Angus Cerini, Wayne Macauley and Melissa Reeves – for this Melbourne Festival premiere.
The last time Dee, Wilks and Cornelius put their fierce talents together, it was in the uncompromising all-female play Shit, which similarly lifted the lid off the lives of downtrodden women. Last year, Dee’s Animal represented the horrors of domestic violence through a wordless movement piece, performed by Nicci Wilks and Kate Sherman.
The provocative nature of Shit was suggested in its title. In Caravan, it is immediately conveyed through the setting. The play takes place in a real caravan, its side peeled back on hinges. The caravan is situated in the forecourt of Malthouse Theatre; it’s as if there’s a tacit understanding that the women in this caravan do not belong in the theatre itself, and must exist on the fringes, looking in. Behind the caravan, the lights of the city and the Arts Centre spire take on a jarring quality.
These uneasy, painful frictions define the whole of Caravan. The play begins with Donna having a cigarette outside the caravan, relishing a moment of solitude as she swipes left and right on Tinder, dreaming of a man to take her away from her stifling life as a carer for her mother. Her dreaming doesn’t last long. “Fuckin’ get in ‘ere!” comes a shrieking voice, and we meet Judy. Bedridden and dying from a lifetime of alcoholism, Judy relies completely on her daughter. Tonight, they will laugh, reminisce, reveal secrets and exchange bitter barbs accumulated over years of co-dependence. There’s a sense that this is has been the rhythm of their relationship for decades; although tonight, something will happen that might change things forever.
Like Shit, Caravan toes a fine line between warm humour and crushing darkness. As Judy, Dee is a stubborn invalid; she commands the caravan from her bed like a queen, indulges in her own delusions of grandeur (“I am a genius!” she says to her daughter) and (at first) sweetly asks Donna for wine, despite her doctor’s strict instructions. Donna is rough and full of fire, chopping liver for dinner (a gory allusion to Judy’s liver, enlarged and damaged beyond repair), fantasising about sweaty wood-workers in the forest and dancing to ’80s power ballads like nobody’s watching.
Judy and Donna navigate the complexity of their relationship easily and convincingly. As a director, Dee’s practice is physical and visceral, and this comes through in brackets of dialogue punctuated by choreographed movement sequences. Like many mothers and daughters, the pair are at times symbiotic in their physicality and speech (the scene when they wordlessly eat dinner while watching television is particularly enjoyable); but there’s also a sense that their co-dependence has bred resentment and desperation.
This tension reaches breaking point in a tender, wordless scene that reverses the mother-daughter dynamic. It comes through again less successfully in the following moment of unnecessary plot revelation that borders on soap opera. Indeed, there are some points when there’s a sense that in a play crafted by four accomplished writers, more cohesion was needed. At times, exposition feels a little laboured.
Holding all this tension together is the caravan itself. Set and costume designer Marg Horwell has triumphed in her meticulously detailed and convincing work: the caravan is tattered and lived-in, with kitsch knick-knacks and boxes of medication littered along the shelves, and plastic kitchenware on the flimsy counter. When the door is slammed, bits and pieces fall to the ground. There’s a real sense that the caravan is a home, a prison, and a brittle barrier between these women and the outside world that has forgotten them.
It’s no small feat to create a piece of work that is harsh and full of pain, and yet, deeply empathic. Like Shit and Animal, Caravan feels raw, bold and vital.