Patricia Cornelius and director Susie Dee, collaborators in theatre for over 30 years, team up for another production – Big Heart – dealing with prickly issues of how we feel about ourselves as Australians in relation to our migrants, our wealth, and our place in the world ‘community’. Commissioned by the University of Southern Queensland, Big Heart is a story about a single wealthy western woman who adopts a ‘rainbow family’ of five children from five different continents including a ‘boy from my own country.’ At least, that’s what the play maintains it’s about. What it does really is ram home a message about western exploitation of the global south. In case you don’t get this message, there’s a handy list at the finale of the resources of other countries plundered by western investment.
The production values, performances, set costume and sound were all terrific, along with the lean efficient theatrical storytelling which is one of Cornelius’s trademarks. We see the stages of the children’s lives, their milestones, all swiftly performed as images or gestures; a series of musical instruments, items of sports equipment or hobby accoutrements are taken up then discarded. The dialogue is tightly written, at times humorous with many moments of poignant observation, most especially when it comes to mothering issues and the need of teenagers to distance themselves from their parents. At various times the children line up, are paraded, crowd Mother competing for her affection and competing with each other. Mother is played by Andrea Swifte, perfect as the well-meaning and loving yet subtly controlling matriarch, aware of yet unapologetic about the privilege she enjoys. She is ‘giving back’, after all. Mother expects gratitude and, although she’s supportive when one of her daughters, Charlotte (Daniela Farinacci), decides to search for her birth mother, you can sense the ambivalence beneath her words. The radicalisation of African born Edward (Vuyo Luko)and how this plays out is surprising but not laboured, and the dynamic between indigenous Charles (Sermsah Bin Saad) and Elizabeth (Kasia Kaczmarek) provides a darker story thread still. Elmira Jurik plays Daniela whose reaction to being taken ‘back’ to Vietnam stands in for cultural alienation of the migrant or second generation child.
Sound design (Darius Kedros) is terrific and the simple set (Marg Horwell) is dominated by a giant traditional family photo beneath which Mother sits on a large throne-like Chesterfield armchair – both overbearing presences; it works well.
Cornelius says “It’s a play of ideas, it’s a play about what constitutes family and what’s constitutes the real face of Australia. It’s a play which risks treading on toes, which might offend, which says unflattering stuff about us.” But when a work is born from issues rather than a story about an individual or individuals in strife, despite plot, or crisp dialogue, or tender or tortured interactions between characters, or dazzling theatricality, the ideas dominate, which results in less than satisfying theatre. I’m a fan of Cornelius’s work but I came away from this feeling manipulated and preached to; to me the play is a nicely disguised lecture, a matter of form over content.
Theatre Works and Dee & Cornelius present
by Patricia Cornelius
Directed by Susie Dee
Venue: Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda VIC
Dates: 6 – 24 September 2017
Tickets: $38 – $30