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Photo by by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, RADIANCE, by Louis Nowra, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir Street Theatre, Surry Hills, 7 January – 8 February.

From the writers notes the $13 Program and Currency Press text publication of RADIANCE, by Louis Nowra:

RADIANCE is an exuberant black sabbath for three great Indigenous dames. Cressy, Nona and Mae are half sisters with little in common except the ghosts of their childhood. They gather, in the tropical Queensland landscape, for Mum’s funeral. These three sisters are forces of nature, and they haven’t been in the same room for many, many years. It isn’t long before that old house can’t contain the joy and pain of them all being together again…

RADIANCE began its life at Belvoir in 1993. It has been produced around the country and around the world, and been made into a feature film (1998). After 22 years, this mighty little classic made its way back home to Belvoir’s corner stage. … .

This 22 year old play, unfortunately, in this production, shows its age and is a simplistic melodrama of almost naive proportions, today – obvious and over drawn. It had, for me, echoes of a third rate Tennessee Williams drama, or a 1940-50’s Warner Brothers B pot-boiler. This text for three Indigenous actress’s may have been groundbreaking in the time of its premiere, in 1993, but now, simply, demonstrates how time has moved on since then, in the representation and sophistication of the stories of Indigenous women.

The comic transparency and dramaturgical function of the first act, especially notable in the role of Nona (Miranda Tapsell), for instance, needs to be handled by the Director and Actor with much more subtlety than is apparent in this production, for it to be taken absolutely seriously, and to add up to a significance, for the ‘turn about’ in the last act, for the character’s development to have any chance of real substance of emotional truths. That Leah Purcell has elected to play one of the sisters, the international opera singer, Cressy, as well as Direct the production, seems, in the experience of the play, at Belvoir, a misstep, a mistake. The development of the relationships of the sisters in the first act is, essentially, clumsily and superficially handled by Ms Purcell – without any character nuances, sub-textual revelations, developed by her, with the actors, to help us see more than literary, cardboard thin figures on the stage. Its staging is unmotivated and fussy without observational depth of any directorial skill. It is difficult for us to believe the women are other than actors mouthing the text and moving about the small, narrowed stage, uncomfortably, a lot. A lot. It is a tragedy, really, for all three actors have demonstrated their acting skills otherwise, elsewhere.

Fortunately, Ms Purcell has elected to play the text without an interval, for some of us might have elected to leave, for it is only in the last act, when the actor, Shari Sebbens, as Mae, given, virtually, the equivalent of an ‘operatic’ aria by the writer, can take centre stage without the real need of support from the other performers to demonstrate the powers of her gifts as a performer (desperately hinted at, by her, in the first act, when able), that some identification, and quickening of the heart creating empathy for her character can happen for the audience. Ms Sebbens playing the long suffering sister, Mae, sustains a magnificently structured reading of the plight of her woman, and sinking into the stage mud plains in Mae’s mother’s old wedding dress, scores a virtuosic, truthful and compelling series of moments – worth waiting for. Ms Purcell, too, gives herself, the space to score some good work with Cressy’s ‘big’ moment, in the recall of the ‘rape’ in the same act. Ms Purcell has plotted her own moments, there, with some canny care.

The set design, by Dale Ferguson, crowds the actors onto a shallow shelf to perform on, towards the back of the stage, for the first long half of the play, so as to present a ‘flooded’ mud plain on the forestage for the actors to splash, wallow in, for the concluding action. But, at least, in this Design solution at Belvoir, every seat could see the action – remember the Set Design for THE GLASS MENAGERIE, or THE SEAGULL? The costumes are ‘elegant’, if a little unreal for the location, for each of the characters. The Lighting, by Damien Cooper, as usual, makes the most of the visual conception to help it to work.

With Ms Tapsell, Sebbens and Purcell acting this melodramatic text, guided by an experienced and independent Director, would RADIANCE, the play, have brushed up better? For, it really doesn’t in the Upstairs Belvoir Street Theatre, in 2015, no matter what we are told happened in the same space in 1993. There was a ‘small’ attendance on the night I saw it.

N.B. Ticket = $62 + Program/Text = $13
Total = $75