Left – Emily Goddard. Photos – Sarah Walker
In This is Eden, Emily Goddard tells the story of her great great great grandmother, Sarah Ford, who was transported as a convict in 1837 and imprisoned in the Cascades Female Factory near Hobart.
Three years in development, this one-woman show, performed by Goddard and directed by Susie Dee, operates in layers, opening in the fortyfivedownstairs foyer space with Goddard’s contemporary young presenter introducing the performance by explaining what we’re going to see and offering some historical context. She speaks against a backdrop of a wall hanging – a map of Australia made of hessian sacks catching the light at certain angles to produce an unexpected sheen and reminding us of slave labour undertaken by prisoners. We then move into the theatre space and after further introductions meet Sarah Ford, not a nameles, unknown woman from history but a real person surviving in a world beyond nightmare. We are given glimpses of her life before prison, gaining an understanding of the injustices of a society which led to the unfair incarceration of so many young women.
That any of the women survived imprisonment at all, let alone kept their sanity, is remarkable. Endurance becomes more and more miraculous as the visceral effect of the prison conditions settles on the audience. It’s not an easy ride. The strength of this production is how the balance of light and dark achieves a rhythm which you could, in a way, almost compare to the mechanics of childbirth – the gap between contractions ensures the pain can be borne without losing one’s mind. Shakespeare did this, knowing precisely when relief was necessary for the audience to stay with the telling of a heartbreaking story. And this is how This is Eden works – when the vicarious experience of such cruelty, abjection and misery becomes almost unbearable, there is a shift in tone, to either the unwittingly amusing presence of our presenter or the women prisoners amusing themselves at the expense of their captors. Young Sarah is pregnant, as it happens, the result of rape. We hear that one in four babies born in the female factory survived, something the authorities considered something of an achievement.
The set is simple, a metal bed frame (no mattress) sits beneath an oblong frame dripping water and evoking dreadful chill (we know how cold a Tasmanian winter gets), design and lighting (by Gina Gascoigne) suggest the stench of mouldering food, vomit and worse, bringing us deep into filth, cold and darkness. The subtle soundscape (by Ian Moorhead) works to support the creation of this horribly evocative environment. The text makes parallels with modern times, the historical context is explored along with a definitely non-preachy reminder of present day privilege. Another of the production's highlights is how it makes you think without telling you to.
This is Eden is terrific theatre, as affecting and impressive as anything you will see. Opening night saw the audience on its feet, an accolade well-deserved. Cannot recommend it highly enough.
This is Eden
by Emily Goddard
Director Susie Dee
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: 27 April – 7 May 2017
Tickets: $25 – $35
Bookings: 03 9662 9966 | fortyfivedownstairs.com