Reflecting on relationships

THE AUDIENCE for the performance of Australian playwright Louis Nowra's acclaimed play `Radiance' at the Museum Theatre on January 9 was largely made up of delegates to the `Understanding Australia' conference at the University of Madras, organised by the Department of English last week, many of whom were Australian. This is not a review of the audience, but for us there was a particular piquant curiosity in the anticipation of this experience.

`Radiance' was well known; it had several productions in Australia since 1993, and was made into an award-winning film.

The play is about three Aboriginal half-sisters who have gone their separate ways and meet again when their mother dies in the seaside home where they grew up. Nowra is not himself Aboriginal but developed the play in close collaboration with the three Aboriginal actors who first played the sisters. (I should mention that Aboriginal is a word without negative connotation for Australia's indigenous people.) For an Australian audience, the play is inevitably read as to some extent "about" Aboriginality. How would Indian student actors, who had never been to Australia and were not familiar with the cadences and nuances of Aboriginal English, be able to interpret this very Australian work?

The question disappeared in the absorption of the audience in this powerfully realised production.

Naga Radhika, as Mae, the sister who had stayed with their mother in her final days, taking care of an increasingly troublesome old woman, gave a performance that suggested the resentment and suffering under her dour and dutiful demeanour; a repressed rage eventually bursts into arresting expression. Gayatri was spirited and cheeky as the overtly sexual, rebellious and provocative younger sister Nona, who nurtures a romantic dream that will turn out to be a bitter irony. Nicola Jeremiah brought convincing maturity, pride and pain to Cressey, the well-travelled career woman who has tried to forget the past, and finally divulges a painful hidden truth in the play's cathartic moments. Subtlety and authenticity marked all three performances, strengthened by ensemble work that brought a genuine sense of familial intimacy.

The past, of course, won't always be left behind but can come right back to face you, forcing you to notice its changing shapes and colours, its new facets. The sisters bicker and joke and challenge each other in tones familiar to all who have siblings, rehearsing shared memories and airing old grievances. But they are in a new situation and begin to enter new territory, moving towards more understanding of their difficult, wild-living mother, seeing each other in new light and making inevitable a terrible revelation that will change the meaning of the past and what they are to each other.

This play is not light entertainment, though it does have its moments of lightness and humour. It dares to disclose some of life's darkest aspects. There are some harrowing moments, and they are not shirked by the courageous performances. The authenticity of the emotion was unmistakable and left no-one present unmoved. Despair is defeated by the sheer guts and, in spite of estrangement and differences, the love that bind these sisters.

The effectively simple staging utilised some examples of traditional and modern Aboriginal art in early scenes. Somehow that worked as more of a tribute to the origins of the play than as a creation of specific geographical or cultural context. Later the stage became an unadorned dark space and the world of the play seemed to be one outside specific time and place, an effect underlined by the simple black costumes designed by V. Padma.

How "Aboriginal" was it? How "Australian"? Plays to some extent are about language. In this production, Aboriginal English disappeared with the locutions of a world English with Indian inflexions, and somehow this worked wonderfully well. It revealed the play as universal and a potential classic. Possibly the drama of Nowra's three sisters will be enacted as far and wide, in as many various interpretations, as those of Chekhov.

This was work of professional standard by `Curtain Call', the theatre group of the English Department. The achievement of director P. Rajani, professor of Theatre Studies, is remarkable. He inspired strong and consistent performances, dramatic clarity and a compelling rhythm that allowed for no dull moments in a challenging piece.


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