This new Australian play by Melita Rowston charts the obsession of a writer and explores the nature of the artistic impulse
Art history is alive and well in the Australian zeitgeist. Local author Heather Rose’s Marina Abramović-inspired novel The Museum of Modern Love just won the 2017 Stella Prize, and Hannah Gadsby structured part of her Barry-Award winning Melbourne Comedy Festival show Nanette around famous old paintings; and earlier this year the Art Gallery of NSW’s Nude exhibition turned extra arty when Sydney Dance Company danced their response to the collection.
Between the Streetlight and the Moon, a new play by Australian writer Melita Rowston, slots into this larger cultural conversation reckoning with famous artists and their art, echoing questions we’ve been hearing a lot this year: who were these people behind the art? Who are these women captured in men’s painting? Who are the fully realised humans behind the enigmatic ‘muses’ – women who sat for those famous men? Is the art world sexist?
Zadie (Lucy Miller) is an Australian artist turned London-based art historian who can’t seem to finish her thesis. She’s obsessed with the rumoured love affair between 19th century painters Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet, to the point that it’s self-destructive. Her inability to solve the riddle sees her suspended and uprooted in Europe, so Zadie’s advisee and feminist-adjacent co-conspirator Dominique (Joanna Downing, who shoulders a shudderingly broad French accent) suggests they go looking for – and potentially steal – the couple’s lost love letters from museum archives.
And then we meet the men. There’s Barry (Ben McIvor), a painter friend of Zadie’s from Sydney who is clearly in love with her and clearly a bit of an idiot. He says things like “I’m a feminist because I love women,” and doesn’t seem convinced that women can be great artists; he’s unlikeable, petulant, and both Zadie and Dominique will explore a romantic connection with him.
There’s also Jeff (Lani Tupu), Zadie’s ex-lover, who spends most of his time running his hand through a maddeningly superfluous strip of water built under the stage that the audience cannot see. He’s mysterious and whimsical and maybe not entirely real. It becomes clear that Zadie parallels her past relationship with Jeff with that of Morisot and Manet, though this collocation isn’t elegantly plotted or explained; it’s just that an audience in 2017 tends to understand the beats of a romance story like this one. We fill in the blanks.
This isn’t a well-formed script, and some of the dialogue sits oddly in the ear, like Dominique’s frequent and deliberate use of the word “Oof.” But it’s good fodder for a story, and that might be enough to hook and hold your interest; somewhere inside it is a charming time-slip rom-com that explores the lives of the painters and the woman obsessed with them, without spending too much time in the world of Zadie’s academia or with childish Barry. It’s a long play, and strategic cuts and re-alignment could re-invigorate the play itself – removing extraneous elements could draw more focus to the parallels between Zadie and the 19th century affair, creating a more fulfilling audience experience.
Still, there are some chuckles to be had in the script, and there’s a freshness to the story that helps; it’s a play that insists we pay attention to women like Morisot, who helped create our modern artistic sensibilities by trailblazing her way into a creative profession usually denied to women, and it invites us to consider the role women have played in the creation and consumption of art.