There’s something about prisons that brings out the best in Australian playwrights; we have a long tradition of prison drama, and it tends to the melancholic and wistful rather than the violent and brutal. Perhaps it’s the long shadow of our convict past, not to mention the incarcerated present, that makes us particularly prone to identify with the inmate. Olivia Satchell’s new play My Sister Feather doesn’t even name the crime her character Egg has committed, as if it’s really none of our business or wouldn’t matter anyway.
Egg (Emily Tomlins) has been inside for an undisclosed length of time, but it’s long enough to be taken aback by a visit from her sister Tilly (Belinda McClory). No one visits Egg, and it seems years have gone by since Tilly has made the effort. You can see that effort on her taut, smiling face as she explains why she’s late, and gabbles incessantly about all things inconsequential and petty. She knows she’s pushing shit uphill, because she constantly breaks her monologue to supply Egg’s responses (“Oh thanks, Tilly, you look nice too,” for example), part of the social niceties Egg has no inclination to give her.
It’s only when Tilly explains that their mother is dead that this awkward false exchange comes to an abrupt end. Their mother abandoned them during a game of hide and seek when Tilly was seven and Egg was four, and neither have seen her since. Before she died she wrote them a letter each, which Tilly produces, both still unopened. These letters will sit between them for the remainder of the play, talismanic and silent.
Satchell splices the contemporary action with extended flashbacks to when the girls were children, either poised on the moment of their abandonment or dealing with the fallout. It’s a good dramatic choice, because it breaks the unrelenting bitterness and resentment of the women’s current relationship and ushers in a mood of joy and freedom. Both actors handle these shifts with consummate control and energy, and Satchell navigates the tonal variations with real skill. The games and accompaniments of childhood echo through the characters’ adult selves in key ways, and a sense of a whole life, albeit it with significant redacted chunks, slowly comes in to view.
Satchell’s attention to detail – the mirrored phrasing, the repeated actions, the myriad ways bodies can touch in space – are reinforced in the staging. Jason Crick’s lighting design is subtle but vital in establishing first the sterility of the prison’s visiting room, then the warmth of the childhood memories. The light in the vending machine flickers out whenever we are in the past, and comes back on with a kind of grinning regularity whenever we return to the prison. The space is both claustrophobic and strangely expansive.
As the sisters, Tomlins and McClory are simply superb. Tomlins’ resentments have clenched her hands into fists, her face into a provocation, but she also is capable of gleeful whimsy and playfulness. Her neediness is pure in childhood and petrified in adulthood, and the tragedy is evinced in those missing years. McClory is heartbreaking as the sister who was just that little bit older and who subsequently suffers the most, unable to care for her sister and herself at once, overwhelmed by guilt.
My Sister Feather is ultimately about family, about the cruelties and comforts that family members can inflict on each other. It’s about the body shock of abandonment and the tentative ways we try to mend brokenness. Satchell’s characters never open their letters, but then they were never going to be enough for all that was lost.