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Sport For Jove Theatre Company, She Said Theatre and Seymour Centre present FALLEN, by Seanna van Helten, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, City Rd. Chippendale. 6 April – 22 April.

FALLEN is a new Australian play by Melbourne writer, Seanna van Helten. In FALLEN we meet six women, five young girls: Martha (Abbie-lee Lewis), Georgie (Eloise Winestock) Julia (Moreblessing Maturure) Isabella (Rebecca Montalti) and a late comer, to the house, Rosina (Chantelle Jamieson), with a supervising Matron (Lucy Goleby), who are inmates in a house of Charity, a half-way house, in London in the Victorian era, early, 1847.

Over the two act play, of three hours (including interval) we watch these young women, chosen particularly, volunteered specifically, act out their relationships, that seem to revolve around the perennial human needs (no matter what gender) of avarice and ambition, greed and power. Despite they been dressed in quasi-period costume (Chloe Greaves) with some generally untidy period hair styles (Benjamin Moir), most of these actors cavort with loose modern physicality (Anja Mujic, Movement Director) and with broad Australian dialects as freely as if they were playing in the same psychological territory as the young women in HEATHERS (1990 film) or MEAN GIRLS (2004 film). The experience of the production of FALLEN feels as if we were witnessing a period costumed episode for/from the television series of PRISONER or WENTWORTH. These women in Urania Cottage could be the women in Wentworth or, even ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK – bar the dialects. “Girls will be girls”, it seems to be saying.Yes? No?

The many scenes of FALLEN present the women dealing with each other and the Matron of the house, manipulating, teasing, quarrelling, flirting, with little to no dramatic revelation or motivation and next to no storyline. The dramatic arc, the journey of these characters is almost a flatline. Where we begin with them is near where we end with them. The individual scene writing is of interest but they, collectively, just don’t go very far, narratively, side-by-side. A collection of beads do not make a necklace without the string to display them. A collection of scenes do not make a play without the string of forward action of want – a what and why of the action, a clear plot. The women of this play have volunteered to be where they are, they have accepted the conditions of their ‘contract’ because they all want the same thing – a better life. Just what that better life of these individuals maybe is hardly examined in this text. We get to know little of their past and little of their expectations of their personal wants for their future – we see only the slow stewing pressures of the present in the emotional hothouse of this cottage. This is a work of fiction and little poetic licence or research seems to have taken place among the collaborators bar, perhaps, a heaping on of the contemporary personalisations of each of the artists – with little or no absorption of the given circumstances of the place and time of the story they have decided to tell – early Victorian England.

The inspiration of this play comes from some discovered facts concerning the founding of Urania Cottage as a Home For Fallen Women, in Acton Road, Shepherds Bush, through the philanthropic interests of Miss Burdett-Coutts, an independently wealthy heiress and the novelist Charles Dickens.(The mention of Dickens “a famous man”, suggests the Director, requires an insertion of “an eye rolling emoji”. Though not one for the independently famous wealthy woman, I note.) The plan was to select some women from desperate circumstances, provide a refuge for them, as an alternative to the other workhouse propositions, to have them to try to forget their past, and to offer education in domestic skills to provide opportunity for a new beginning, a new life, perhaps in the colony of Australia. Dickens’ philosophy was of the most practical kind to “… action, usefulness – and the determination to be of service … The World is not a dream but a reality, of which we are the chief part. … “ Once the Urania Cottage was formally opened, having selected the Chaplain, the Matron and set details of costume and study, Dickens took a very active interest in overseeing the major part of the routine (one wonders whether it was a crucible of observation for his writing? Isabella Gordon, one of the women at the cottage seems to have been the origin of Martha in DAVID COPPERFIELD.) The experiment was destined for failure, Dickens and Miss Burdett-Coutts suffered disappointment, for the first women who had been sent out to Australia in order to start new lives had apparently taken up prostitution on the ship itself. The particular group in the study of this play are based on the story of Isabella Gordon, who in league with two others, began to stir up resentment against the Matron and her assistant.

Little is known of the actual women, the Director Penny Harpham tells us, that they are ‘untraceable’ ‘vanished’ ‘disappeared’, so that a lot of the psychology and backstory of the characters in FALLEN is a generalised ‘gist’ of likelihoods – mostly with backgrounds of mistreatment, fantasy, and deprivation leading to prostitution etc. As such the subjects/the women of the play are a disappointment and are as ‘insipid’ and or ‘stupid’ as most of Dickens’ young heroines in his novels – he was in the midst of writing DOMBEY AND SON – particularly as at the same time as this philanthropic endeavour was taking place, JANE EYRE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS – with startling women characters, written by women – and Thackery’s VANITY FAIR, with one of the most brilliantly notorious women of fiction, Becky Sharp, appeared. With wider reading from the novels of the Victorian era, the world of FALLEN could have been peopled with some truly dynamic role models for the fictional world of this play’s construct and agenda. Women of intelligence, active instinct and courage in the face of adversity and social discrimination.

For what do Ms van Helten and her Director, Penny Harpham have the female protagonists actually do in this play? Say in this play? Not much more, it seemed than the familiar behaviours that have trivialised the female sex in most literary history, with their continuous teasing each other, plotting, spying against each other, fighting and dancing with each other. Do they actually work or are they wiling away the time waiting for someone to rescue them, whether it be a male hero or villain, sending notes through the cracks in the wall, the fences? Oh, how I longed for one of the great revolutionary heroines of Victorian literature to be shadowed in this play as a protagonist of some power in it. With some of the traits of a Jane Eyre we may have had the spirit of a Germaine Greer infusing this play with some real muscular and consequential heft. With Becky Sharp, whose sprit could we have seen? Or, Diana Merion, the DIANA OF THE CROSSWAYS of George Meredith, what insights into the conflicts that besiege the women who attempt independence could we have seen investigated. What if Sue Brideshead in Hardy’s JUDE THE OBSCURE, or Rhoda Nunn in Gissing’s THE ODD WOMEN or Isabel Archer from Henry James’ THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, had been an inspiration for complexity for the women in this fictionalised play?

Generally, it seems to me, reading the program notes and publicity blurbs, the Writer and Director, were deploring the ways in which Victorian women are recollected as conforming to social stereotypes; where they appeared frail, less intelligent, dependent on men (Dickens in this case – insert, eye rolling emoji!) but controlling or diverting male lust by serving as wives, guardians of hearth and home. (Why have the artists not conceived a role for representation of Ms Burdett-Coutts in the schemata of this play, I wondered – selective exclusion?) There is little in depth of study  of the period of history and an application of that to this play script’s integrity.

This is true of other contributions to this production. The acting has some considerable diversity in the participants experience and skill and so the playing is not of the same world or play. The responsibility for this is first that of the Actor and then the Director. We have, for instance, a kind of sophistication of skill and general insight into the world of the play with Ms Goleby’s creation of the Matron (classic gothic villain with a shadowy, salaciously suppressed lesbian undertow), but a merely personalised ownership – playing herself, as Isabella, in an extreme naturalistic life-like mode from Ms Montalti – sometimes barely able to be heard in the audience, and presenting a choice of a modern ill-discilpne of physical characterisation. This could also be said of Moreblessing Maturure’s performance as Julia – a lack of skill in both voice and body undermines the clarity of her storytelling tasks, no matter the apparent ‘truth’ of the emotional connections she seems to identify. Her lack of proficiency always distracts us from the character to the actor’s problems. And what was the Director’s dramaturgical decision aiming at at having these English characters, who have, I imagine a variety of regional dialects,  speaking in an anachronistic and broad range of Australian sound? It was faintly ridiculous everytime they spoke of far away Australia as their coming destination – it seemed that they had been born and bred there. The rationalising of the choice was/is fairly opaque.

The Set Design by Owen Phillips had a grey screen wall, divided into furnished acting spaces, that created only a vague sense of period or reality – rather it seemed to have been decided upon to facilitate a Video Design, by Michael Carmody, and though that was often hauntingly beautiful and I thought had potential impact, it was not fully realised by the team in storytelling terms. The prominent door handles on the set were so inappropriate for the period that they became a centre of much distraction for me. Too, the bobby pins in the hair of the women – did they belong to this period? And what of the pet wild mouse kept in a little box with a sliding lid that often was wide open during long conversation? Why didn’t that mouse leap from its prison with such an easy egress available – or, I began to think, was its failure to get out and escape, a simple metaphor for the paralysis of any of these women to leave what we came to understand in the text of this play their unhappy prison?  “No”, I cynically  thought to myself, “too sophisticated a decision to have been made for this production!” (When one is not engaged in the content and drama of a play one has some (a lot of) spare time to see and wonder why things are. In nearly three hours of watching one has to be engaged some way!)

SHE SAID THEATRE is a Melbourne Company and this play came to attention after great support from many different ‘agencies’ in our current ‘industry’ to develop new Australian plays via Playwriting Australia (Tim Roseman, Samantha Hickey), the National Script Workshop, and the Victorian College of the Arts (Raimondo Cortese, Richard Murphet), and a reading of it at the FESTIVAL FATALE run by the Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) at the Darlinghurst Theatre,  last year (2016). SPORT FOR JOVE, under the encouragement from Lizzie Schebesta, it seems – a regular actor with Sport For Jove and an active founder of WITS – has taken on the premiere production of this play. And while the venture certainly ticks many popular boxes for contemporary exhibition: a play investigating the role of women in society; a play with female characters played by women; a production team of collaborators dominated by women artists; a deliberate diversity of casting along multi-cultural representation, what the play does not have, at this time, is a  tick-box for homogeneity of skills, or depth of investigation of the world of the play. This is the first production of this work and if we were in a more sophisticated Arts precinct, this production would serve as a springboard for re-writing to lead to the development of another production, if one thought it worthwhile. The experience of most American plays that reach the principal centres of performance often have five to six – more – productions and Draft development. Here, in Australia that is, rarely, the case. This is not Sport For Jove’s first new play venture, last year’s ANTIGONE was a new work and was certainly at a more sophisticated level of readiness for presentation than FALLEN. What are the lessons learnt by this company from this production in the Reginald, and what development will happen with this play, as a result of this public exposure? Or, more than likely, knowing the precedents of history, will it now go into a bottom draw in somebody’s bedroom, or study?

One had high expectations for this work. I have enjoyed other work examining the position of women in an historic period, that illuminated the past for the present: the work of Pam Gems (QUEEN CHRISTINA; CAMILLE) or April de Angelis (PLAYHOUSE CREATURES), and both these playwrights could serve as models of approach. Disappointment only lets me appreciate FALLEN as an explorative workshop of a new raw text rather than as a finished new play. It needs to have a more detailed research period and a more complex philosophic tethering for existing, and more care about the casting. It felt, merely, a fashionable and over hasty enterprise rather than a serious attempt to examine its originating raison d’être. Says Director, Penny Harpham:

As women, we know too well that what is said about us is very different to how we might actually feel or what the reality of our situation really is. We’re used to be spoken about, sidelined and have rules and laws about our bodies and lives dictated and decided by men. We wanted to give these women a chance at a more complex, a more full, a more challenging representation. The quiet revolution for us has begun.

Sadly, there is not much challenging going on with this play through the female gaze of these artists. There is little new complexity, or fuller representation of these women of our Victorian past – we have seen and heard what they say and do in Ms van Helten’s FALLEN, all before, in other works,  in Dicken’s for example – (insert, eye rolling emoji.) The Female gaze here is not easily discernibly different to what we have already read or seen. There is no revolution sparked here with this play. It is more a kind of ‘huff and puff’. There is barely a glimmer of revolutionary imagination or original enlightenment for us.

Unfortunately, SHE SAID THEATRE, with this play and production of FALLEN, has the aspirations of angels, and only that.