Left – Julia Blake and James Bell. Photo – Gary Marsh
Aidan Fennessy, writer and director of National Interest is not only MTC's Associate Director, but cousin of Tony Stewart, one of the Balibo Five whose death in East Timor is at the heart of Fennessy's latest play. Blending fact, fiction and conjecture, he retells the story through the eyes of Stewart's mother, played by Julia Blake.
The one-act play is a strange and daring mix of dramatic narratives, thirty years apart, all played out within the Stewart family home, with the roof and walls removed to view the passing ghosts of the young men who died in 1975. The mother, June Stewart, is present throughout, firstly, in a conversation with her daughter Jane (Michelle Fornasier) after a dinner to commemorate her husband's death; secondly, during her son's preparation for his trip to East Timor in 1975; then witnessing the deaths of the three Channel Seven film crew; and finally the Coronial Inquiry of 2007; before returning to the conversation with her daughter.
There is some confusion about the dominant theme of these interwoven stories. In his comments for the theatre program, Fennessy names many themes, too many. The mother's fictional story, about love, loss and grief, gives way to the factual recounting of the murder of the Balibo Five, with its theme of truth and justice, and then to conjecture – how did the family react to the Coronial Inquiry's findings? The words fiction, fact and conjecture are even flashed on to the stage at three points in the play, in a clumsy attempt to separate them and exonerate the playwright from any responsibility for misrepresentation.
The dialogue between Blake and Fornasier opens with a discussion about ageing and the mother's ability to cope alone. It has no follow-up and is somewhat banal. Although the idea of memory loss has some relevance to the story, the talk of nursing homes is thematically misleading. If, by the constant reference to her husband's death, with no mention of her son's, Fennessy means to indicate that June has conveniently forgotten the tragedy, he fails to convey this in dramatic terms.
Blake put up her hand for this role and brings to it a fine sense of grief, motherly love and a blend of the fragility and strength of the older woman. The opening, fictional sequence builds up a picture of a woman who appears stoic after losing first her son and then, a year before the play starts, her husband. Blake milks the script for pauses and words that highlight the cracks beneath the surface of her resilience. Only occasional lapses from broad Australian to a more educated accent mar her finely nuanced performance.
Fornasier's role was more difficult to portray and consisted mostly of attempts to get her mother's attention: 'Mum..." This becomes an annoying tic. Her face is focussed on her mother's throughout, which seems unnatural and takes away the tension between mother and daughter as they struggle with the past.
The mother-daughter scene is interrupted by a flashback to 1975, in the run-up to the Balibo event. The ghosts of the three Channel Seven journalists materialise in the house and their mother watches in fascination as the well-known tragedy is acted out. The actors who play the three journalists are excellent: James Bell as the youthful Tony Stewart; Grant Cartwright as Gary Cunningham; and Stuart Halusz as leader of the group, Greg Shackleton. Convincing in their 1970s hairstyles and flared pants, they bring to life their carefree days prior to leaving for East Timor. The men double as government officials, reeling off reports and delivering the news of their son's death to the Stuart family.
Ben Collins' intricate sound design and Trent Suidgeest's lighting heightens the dramatic scenes and eases the numerous transitions between time and place. But the play may have had more emotional integrity if there had been more unity of time and place and less reliance on reported, recycled words. More fiction, and less fact. After all, there is no new factual material here to add to the story, no need to debate whether the Balibo Five were murdered or caught in crossfire.
Fennessy does not, as he intended, get to the heart of 'what this story is'. The final scene between mother and daughter is brief, unsatisfying and, more importantly, has little emotional power. The real story of the Balibo Five and its aftermath is universal and cannot fail to move. And the impact it had on the Stewart family and the actions they took to move on were brave and healing, both for the Australians and the East Timorese. This re-imagining of the Stewart's narrative does not pay a fitting tribute to the real story.
Melbourne Theatre Company
by Aidan Fennessy
Director Aidan Fennessy
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 6 June – 21 July 2012
Tickets: from $56 (Under 30s just $33)
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au