Left – Benj D'Addario and Daisy Coyle. Cover – Giuseppe Rotondella and Will McNeill. Photos – Lee Griffith Photography
Black Swan State Theatre Company has commissioned WA playwright Hellie Turner’s The Lighthouse Girl, based on Albany author Dianne Wolfer’s novels, Lighthouse Girl and Light Horse Boy. The play had its world premiere in Albany, where this ANZAC story was born, and has now moved into the Studio Underground for its Perth season.
The eponymous Lighthouse Girl, Fay (Daisy Coyle), is the beacon of light in an uncertain time on rocky Breaksea Island where her recently-widowed father keeps a lighthouse. Her isolated life gains a little momentum when the news of war reaches their humble nest. We also meet two young men, Jim and Charlie, who greet the news of war with naïve optimism and the hope for adventure, though Jim reluctantly agrees to enlist only after considerable prodding from Charlie.
The boys are stationed offshore in Albany bay before departing for the Northern Hemisphere, and here the fates of Fay and Charlie intertwine: she is taking messages sent via semaphore from the soldiers and transmitting them with Morse code to their intended recipients. Charlie has no family to write home to, so he asks if he can write to Fay; she gladly accepts, and they continue to correspond throughout the coming months.
Hellie Turner moves easily within the realm of ANZAC stories; she has previously given us The Dreaming Hill (a WAYTCo commission), which also explored the ways in which young people confront the myths and realities of war. Here, the emphasis is on those that war leaves behind – those who keep the home fires burning and wait for any glimpse of their beloved soldier’s return on the horizon. Her text is straightforward and gets to the heart of the matter, reminding us all again what’s at stake each time there’s a new rumour of aggression in the world.
Stuart Halusz’s direction is clean and unfettered, though it edges on placid; I wished for even more depth and nuance from each character, and more peaks and troughs within each neatly drawn scene. We can’t deny the innate and distinct talents of each performer: the ever-bright and beaming Daisy Coyle, the rock on the rock Benj D’Addario (Fay’s father), the endearing, doddering Murray Dowsett (Joe, the lighthouse assistant), the mannered, quirky cameo by Nick Maclaine, the wise-beyond-her-years Alex Malone (Jim’s sister), and of course the cautious but steadfast Will McNeill (Jim) and the infectiously plucky Giuseppe Rotondella (Charlie).
The designers’ palettes (Lawrie Cullen-Tait, set; Lynn Ferguson, costume; Joe Lui, lighting) evokes yesteryear and wintry coastal climes. The actors clamber up and down a rock face that doubles as the lighthouse interior. Across the top is a skewed white fence that doubles as soldiers’ grave markers, especially when cast in shadow across the rear flats and mingling with projections of archival photographs from the era.
The piece is a tearjerker and works in subtle ways – especially as it coincides with ANZAC Day and all of the thoughts, emotions and debates that emerge from its yearly remembrance. The Lighthouse Girl adds more richness to that section of Australia’s identity that has been shaped by its involvement in WWI, and the play’s tempered perspective leaves nationalism far behind while still honouring the memory of those who fought, sacrificed and ‘did their bit.’ The only flag-waving here is done by Fay, as she signals to the soldiers from atop her lighthouse perch.
Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
The Lighthouse Girl
by Hellie Turner | based on the novels by Dianne Wolfer
Director Stuart Halusz
Venue: The Studio Underground | State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 28 April – 14 May 2017
Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au | 1300 795 012
A Rio Tinto Black Swan co-commission, in association with Albany Entertainment Centre