Presented as a double bill with Legs, Lips Elbows, Bijou's Secret is a new solo performance by Fiona Stewart and the first play she's written.
Bijou's Secret is the haunting story of the three generations of women, and how their lives have been blighted by the bitterness of the unacknowledged past. Stewart plays the three: the French matriarch Bijou, a single mother; her daughter Mireille, an alcoholic poet; and her daughter, Sandra, a down-to-earth artist.
Fragments of monologue, with songs arising naturally from the reflections of the women, this is an atmospheric yet earthy piece of theatre that doesn't overstay its welcome. It explains its characters lives, gives them each time to say what they need to say – the pain that still burns for each of them – and then departs, like incense wafting through an open window (an effect that's also a literal element of the simple staging in the gallery space-turned-theatre of the Sidespace).
Stewart is a singer of considerable experience – she spent 10 years as a jazz performer in France – and here incorporates songs by Gabriel Fauré, Kurt Weill, Artie Butler, and one of her ownMother's Song. Musically, accompanied by classical guitarist Julius Schwing, she engages her audience effortlessly.
But what really sustains Bijou's Secret is the mystery at its heart, and the believable construction of the three women who, while living very different lives, and each quite self-contained, are inextricably intwined.
Bijou has held onto the facts around Mireille's paternity and early life. Sandra, along with the audience, learn the truth of this, and understands that Mireille's life has been damaged, stunted perhaps, by Bijou's decision to withold the truth.
The specifics, concerning a relationship with a German soldier during World War II, are poignant, but not as shocking as the contemporary ripples of that story – inescapable realities such as a mother and daughter who have always misunderstood each other, a wife who cannot fully love her husband, and an artist whose talent has been squandered.
The emotional devastation is leavened by music and the dry wit of the women. Mireille in particular is a superb creation, ruthlessly judgemental on one level, and yet sensual and passionate, largely to her own detriment. She's a bit of a monster, and yet the people around her, her mother, her daughter, and the husband she's treated badly, seem to adore her. Perhaps they're making allowances, for the missing part of her they somehow sense.
This is an intimate and entertaining piece of theatre, constructed with precision and attention to detail. It might sound strange to say, considering the richly melancholic subject matter and Bijou's sense of drama in telling her own story, but it's also delivered with a pleasing lack of sentiment. It doesn't labour the point. Perhaps this comes from an understanding that all of us have secrets that are just as devastating, in their way.
Salamanca Arts Centre, HyPe and Tas Performs presents
by Fiona Stewart
Venue: Sidespace Gallery, Salamanca Arts Centre | Level 1 / 77 Salamanca Place, Hobart
Dates: Tuesday 22 – Sunday 27 May 2012
Tickets: $35 – $15