One of the most dangerous lines in the English language is “that’s the way it’s always been done”. Who does the tired social script really serve? But what if it can be done better? The queer community may not be a monolith, but if there is one point of commonality that unites each letter of the rainbow alphabet, it is resisting and questioning conventional rules.
Lesbian couple Ruth (Danielle Cormack) and Judith (Maude Davey) have forged their own path from the very beginning of their decades-long relationship. They’ve seen Australia change, for better and for worse, and they have made it their life’s mission (and by proxy, their children’s life missions) to be agents of progress. So when they find that their hard-won marriage is over, they break out the highlighters and turn their attention to the project at hand: queering divorce.
Written by Maeve Marsden and making its debut at Belvoir Street Theatre as part of the Sydney WorldPride program under the keen directorial eye of Hannah Goodwin, Blessed Union is the lesbian break-up comedy we didn’t know we needed. Hilarious and heartbreaking, this play will lure you in with its light and cutting humour before it delivers an upper-cut of profound self reflection, and sends you on your way, dazed, with a Bloody Mary in hand (and a head full of trivia about the cocktail’s origin story).
This is a fresh and thoroughly modern take on the family comedy
This is a play about poster-child syndrome, divorce, food, family and togetherness. It is for anyone who has witnessed their parents arguing, felt the pang of a relationship shifting out of romance, and/or done something highly inappropriate with a statue of the Virgin Mary at their restrictive Catholic school. And yes – if you are a lesbian, or your identity falls somewhere under the sapphic spectrum, and if you circulate in activist spaces – you will feel personally attacked, in the best way possible.
We watch Ruth and Judith’s family unravel over the course of nine months, helped(?) along with collaborative wall charts and planned symbolic rituals. However, faced with the inescapable emotional toll of detangling from a life built together, the pragmatism eventually erodes – and palpable heartbreak, chaos and hilarity ensues.
This is a fresh and thoroughly modern take on the family comedy. Daughter Delilah (Emma Diaz) is a high-achieving university student, and her visits home for family occasions become a clever timeline device for the audience’s fly-on-the-wall view into the family home. As we acclimatise to the tempo of the play and grow to understand the dynamics of this family, their comments and asides provoke more and more laughter.
Isabel Hudson’s set and costume design could have been ripped straight out of a queer, upper-middle class, hipster family home – down to the avocado seedlings propagating on the kitchen windowsill and the well-thumbed stack of eclectic cook books above the fridge. Mealtimes are also the communal heartbeat of this story, as they are for many families. Real food is prepared and eaten live on stage. This device is a humanising tool that embeds a homelike reality into the performance, adding a variable livewire interest as we watch the family prepare everything from hand-stretched pasta to crappy frozen dumplings together.
The characters are well-rounded, and the storytelling riffs on stereotypes in ways that only insiders can. Maude Davey brings a hilarious physicality to Judith’s more forlorn moments that contrasts harmoniously moments of quiet reflection; and Danielle Cormack is fully believable as the career-driven union lesbian who could totally destroy your life (and you’d totally let her).
Nothing about the children is an afterthought, either. Delilah and Asher’s personal journeys are just as essential to this story of a family’s transformation. Camp and provocative, Asher (Jasper Lee-Lindsay) could have easily been simple comedic relief, but a richer story thread emerges of a young, mixed-race man finding his way in a female-dominated household and a restrictive school. By the second act, the kids flip the script on the mothers, probing them on whether they really thought it through when they decided to raise a bi-racial son and daughter.
Blessed Union might be Maeve Marsden’s playwriting debut, but you couldn’t find anyone more qualified to tell this story. A theatre maker and writer who has been creating work for more than 15 years in the independent sector, Marsden has developed internationally-touring cabaret shows and acts that skewer expectations and stereotypes – like Lady Sings It Better, a cabaret act where women sing songs traditionally performed by men, pointing out sexism as they go; and Mother’s Ruin, a cabaret about gin (and women). She’s also the founder and host of Queerstories, a popular podcast and nationally touring live storytelling event that showcases personal stories from the LGBTQIA+ community.
On top of this Marsden is a lesbian woman, the child of lesbian activist parents (now separated), and she started writing this play as she was conceiving her first child and growing her own queer family. This is all relevant context because many of the people who have been busting to see this show’s Sydney WorldPride debut are made up of the community of fans, friends and followers who were just as excited to see Marsden’s directorial debut last year, when she put an Aussie sapphic twist on the rock musical Lizzie.
And bloody hell, Maeve delivers here, with memorable lines to boot – like “I'm not spiralling, I'm barbecuing!” and “Everyone likes Jane Fonda, you’re not special”. Please, we need every sapphic-inclined human to see this show so we have a more relatable vessel for lesbian entertainment to dissect together than The L Word.
Blessed Union is a case study of the pressure of presenting “queer perfection”, as well as the pressure to make something work just because you've fought so hard for it. And how easy it is for each generation to lack comprehension of how hard people had to push for some of the rights we take for granted today, which could be stripped from us more easily than we’d like to recognise.
It's OK to fail – and does a romantic relationship reaching a natural conclusion need to be considered a failure anyway, or is there hope to start again? When something isn’t working for us we can take it back to the drawing board, we can queer it up – but we can’t plan our way out of grieving.
Alongside Feminazi, a play running simultaneously in Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre as part of the theatre’s artist development program, Belvoir has carved its place as a hub for sapphic representation during Sydney WorldPride.
Blessed Union is an example of how much of the work being presented for WorldPride can exist in dialogue with one another. Go see this play, and then go check out the Qtopia pop-up or a LGBTQIA+ history tour and see if you can place the timeline of Ruth and Judith’s relationship against the movement they’ve fought for.
Blessed Union is playing at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, until March 11, 2023. Tickets range from $42-$98 and you can get yours here.