A fact largely relegated to elite level Charles Dickens trivia: the author operated a reform home for ‘fallen’ women in Victorian England. The care at Urania Cottage was gentler and more domestic than most comparable institutions at that time. Once the women had completed their rehabilitation, their passage would be booked on a ship to one of the colonies – like Australia – where they could have a chance to settle into a ‘respectable’ life, free from their pasts. The ultimate goal, of course, was marriage.
Seanna van Helten’s play, the first new Australian work produced by classics-mad indie company Sport for Jove, draws a direct line from obscure Dickensian fact to the foundation of Australian colonial history. The ensemble speak with Australian accents; Raya Slavin’s striking soundscape evokes the women’s ocean passage with groans and creaks and the distant, echo-y splashes of waves; the characters wonder about the drinking and violence of the Australian settlers, afraid of and also intrigued by the life that awaits them in a country of long summers, dangerous animals and dangerous men.
Matron (Lucy Goleby) oversees a small group of women: boisterous Isabella (Rebecca Montalti); stoic Julia (Moreblessing Maturure); tremulous Georgie (Eloise Winestock), emotional Martha (Abbie-lee Lewis) and pragmatic Rosina (Chantelle Jamieson). Matron rigorously trains them in refinement – proper dancing, table-setting, and polite conversation – and keeps them regimented with chores and curfews. Every night she locks away the one dress each woman is allowed, so the owners can’t escape and indulge in improper behaviour.
In an effort to clean the slate, the women are forbidden to talk about their pre-Urania lives, but it soon becomes clear that avoidance isn’t a good strategy. The women share snippets of their stories as they bond, or argue; there’s no outlet for emotional reckoning in this apparent life-saver of a cottage, so they are left to process their feelings on their own. They break down during pleasant singalongs or play games together like children, trying to find some semblance of selfhood in this finishing school for wayward girls.
Of course, not all characters in the play believe they need redemption. And nor should they: Urania, much like other homes at the time, were filled with women who were homeless, sex workers, or queer; women who escaped abusive or unsafe households or workhouses; and women who proudly chose to buck social expectations and live independently of a man’s influence. Some of the women of Fallen refuse to have their actions diminished or shamed, just as some can no longer move beyond that shame.
The play grows slowly into a study of the grey areas that crop up around any attempt a society makes to help its underclass, be it women or other disenfranchised groups. These well-meaning actions are rarely devised with input by those groups, and many default to assimilation practices, as though the only thing that could make someone’s life better is by being more like financially secure Christian white men, or at the very least desirable to them. And being desirable in Victorian England meant being compliant and docile.
Penny Harpham directs van Helten’s lyrical, yearning script with a steady and compassionate hand. Projections (by Michael Carmody) bring us back to the ocean, the push and pull of nature and nurture – a reminder of the essential tumult of living as well as a more literal suggestion of passage to new worlds. Sian James-Holland’s lights, Owen Phillips’ set and Slavin’s soundscape work together to add a sense of care to the clinical edges of life in the cottage – the shadows and sounds cast warm and watchful eyes over the women. It feels protective.
The ensemble is mesmerising; each actor – playing a character written and directed by a woman – creates a clear, three-dimensional and likeable character, no matter how ‘nice’ or ‘good’ she appears to be. No two ‘fallen women’ are the same and no woman is reduced to stereotype. They are women who tried to make their own lives.
Some further dramaturgical work is necessary to sharpen the script. The dialogue is heavy with implication and inference when concreteness and context would pack more punch (particularly when the women are referring to their past lives), and the play’s most compelling debate – whether it’s best to conceal your past or own it – could have its groundwork laid more thoroughly before it comes to a head in the second act.
But this is a work that should be granted that developmental process, and the chance to advance to bigger stages and audiences. Few works on major Australian stages are asking audiences to consider women on their own terms, in their own words. With more work, Fallen could be a natural companion to Angela Betzien’s The Hanging – part of the dramatic canon that cares for, and speaks for, women who have been categorically denied their own stories.