Political turmoil is an incubator of dramatic writing, and historical plays about moments of political change are relatively common. Less common are plays set in moments of political turmoil that are about the lives of people who lived through these moments, rather than about the political agitators who created them. This is a shame, as Tessa Bremner's play The Dark Side of Midnight demonstrates with its very heartfelt story about British colonists living through the Partition of India.
In an entirely domestic setting, the action takes place against the backdrop of the Partition, a political upheaval conveniently excluded from the homes of the British Raj and ignored as long as possible. The priss accents and tea-drinking of the gentry belie the reality outside, and its occasional jarring intrusion into their domestic life highlights the unsustainability of their existence. The conflict that undoes their comfortable lifestyle, however, is not the political and religious conflict on the streets of India, but an entirely domestic conflict between colonists.
Bremner's exposition is somewhat laborious. Buried in a lot of dialogue with little actually happening is quite substantial information about the Partition itself, and much of this information doesn't add anything to the story, which really isn't about the Partition. There is a strength, however, in the way exposition gives way to character and plot development, and a very engaging story emerges, which is enhanced beautifully by the peculiar political circumstances the Partition offers. This story rides on the turmoil of some wonderful characters, centred on Geraldine Lucas, the English-born wife of an Indian-born British Major.
Lainie Hart's portrayal of Geraldine Lucas is well-grounded, and once the rather awkward moments of exposition are behind her, she melts seamlessly into her character and really shines as the lifeblood of the play. Eliza Bell and Andrea Close give equally convincing performances of Geraldine's companions.
Playing Geraldine's husband, Josh Wiseman does a great job of balancing Raj pomposity with genuine affection, but he is far less convincing in the second act as her friend's older and fatter widower. Likewise Brian Kavanagh is suitably menacing as Walker, but leans somewhat toward a caricature of the bad guy, rather than a fully-fledged character. For me the jury is still out on whether this is a fault of the dialogue or the performance, but he never quite had me convinced.
Nonetheless, The Dark Side of Midnight is a very engaging play. The way its domestic conflict is surrounded and punctuated by political turmoil is truly inspired, as is the way it doesn't use politics as a substitute for plot and character.
Afficionados of Indian history and those with a connection to British India will obviously be intrigued by the story, but those without much of a background in Indian history should not be put off. This is a great production and should not be missed.
Free Rain Theatre Company presents
The Dark Side of Midnight
by Tessa Bremner
Director Anne Somes
Venue: The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre
Dates: 28 Oct – 13 Nov, 2011
Bookings: (02) 6275 2700