In I Write What I See: Christina Stead Speaks Melbourne-based writer and director Darryl Emmerson has dared to bring Christina Stead, the person and the writer, to the stage in a one-woman performance. To the best of his knowledge, this is the first time Stead has been portrayed on stage and any of her writings performed; and Stead is an author who has been praised by the likes of Angela Carter and Patrick White.
Born in Sydney in 1902 Christina Stead actively chose to step outside the boundaries established for women in her time. In her writing she explores sexual desire, political and economic issues, as well as gender inequality. In her life she practised what she wrote, choosing to live with a married man, Wilhelm Blech (Bill).
Whilst Stead achieved recognition in Europe and the US, her major claim to fame in Australia, until after her death in 1983 when her letters were published along with critical and biographical works, was the banning of her 1946 US best-seller, Letty Fox: Her Luck.
Stead's writing is frequently troubling and tends to the confrontational. I have vivid memories of desperately trying to come to terms with The Man Who Loved Children (1940), which my then literature lecturer thought a masterpiece. Listening to Olivia Brown as Christina Stead read from this work during her performance reminded me of just how challenging this work is and the words took on an even deeper meaning when placed, as they now could be, within the context of Stead's own experience.
Emmerson takes a chronological approach, choosing to highlight some of the key events in Stead's life. This fits nicely with the fact that story-telling was always central to Stead's life and something she was passionate about – the story has a magic essential to our happiness. Early on she entertained her siblings with stories as a way of seeking to keep her place in a changed family situation; a new wife and six siblings had displaced Stead as the only focus of her father's attention. We learn of Stead's hopes and dreams; of the untameable energy and fear of her adolescent sexual desires; of her struggle with teaching; of her deep passion for writing; and of her long term relationship with Bill - the difficulties, the sorrows, the muted joys. At several stages Brown reads from a work in progress - The Salzburg Tales, For Love Alone and The Man Who Loved Children. From time to time slides projected onto the back of the stage offer a context and a time reference.
Brown's is a strong performance that draws the audience in to care about and identify with Stead's experiences. I was particularly moved by her evocation of her father, where Brown beautifully captured the bright hopefulness, admiration and yearning for acceptance of the child. An equally notable moment was late in the performance when Brown is interrogated about her life and why she writes by her puppet, brought both humour and poignancy to the performance.
The set was simple and appropriate - a trunk and a suitcase (so appropriate for a woman who always seemed to be on the move); a typewriter. The direction effective. The story intriguing. All that was missing was the audience this work deserves. It may not be for everyone but I Write What I See: Christina Stead Speaks provides us with meaningful insights into the life and work of, to quote Patrick White, a novelist of genius. And she is Australian.
I Write What I See: Christina Stead Speaks
by Darryl Emerson
Directed by Darryl Emerson
Venue: Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall | 54 Victoria Street, Carlton
Dates: October 13 – 31, 2010
Times: Wed – Sat 8pm; Sun 6pm
Tickets: $19 – $32
Bookings: www.bellaunion.com.au I 03 9650 5699