The Shifting Heart | White Box TheatreLeft – Dina Panozzo and Tony Poli. Cover – Ariadne Sgouros and Lucas Linehan. Photos – Danielle Lyonne

Not so much a kitchen sink drama as perhaps a “backyard verandah drama”, The Shifting Heart is a venerable 1957 Australian play by Richard Beynon. Dealing with the trials and tribulations of immigrant Australians, it is suffused with resonances which speak not only to our national history, but also to our very different present day.

Set in the then-contemporary 1950s, now rendered a period piece, the story concerns the Bianchi family, first-generation Italian Australians living in the then tough working-class Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. They face acceptance and discrimination in almost equal measure, with the competing impulses sometimes internalised within individuals. This is clearly rendered by a metaphor embedded in the staging, with the action entirely taking place on the Bianchis’ backyard verandah, boxed in by Anglo-Aussie neighbours on either side.

To their left is a fractious middle-aged couple, the Pratts. Although engaging in domestic violence between themselves, they are neighbourly and welcoming to the Bianchis. Sardonic housewife Leila Pratt often steps through a gap in the dilapidated fence to visit them for a chat and a smoke, and even her abusive alcoholic husband Donny seems to be on relatively good terms with them. By comparison, the unnamed neighbours to the Bianchis’ right remain unseen yet blatantly hostile, topping their fence with barbed wire and periodically dumping rotten garbage over into their backyard.

How the different members of the family deal with these and other racial slights is one of the major running themes of the play. Momma Bianchi wants to retaliate and block the spiteful neighbours’ sewage pipes, while her husband plays peacekeeper and urges caution. Yet conversely, Poppa Bianchi fumes over how Momma casually accepts the way the alcoholic Anglo butcher they buy from refers to them as “Momma Macaroni” and “Poppa Spaghetti”. More dramatically, their son Gino has taken to regularly getting into fights with Anglo boys at the local dance hall. These are conflicts he may or may not be escalating or even provoking as he chafes against the racial discrimination he faces, despite having grown up in Australia.

Yet the seat of the most deeply ambivalent and internalised cultural conflict is embodied within the family itself, between their heavily-pregnant daughter Maria and her ocker husband Clarry Fowler. Although on the surface Clarry is seemingly progressive, having married an Italian girl and hired her younger brother Gino to work for him in the scrap metal business. Moreover, as Clarry evidently spends more time with the Bianchis than his own family, there is inevitably discord.

Seemingly all-but estranged from his mother who preached distrust of all foreigners after his namesake father was killed in the war by a German, Clarry has obviously grown up with a degree of internalised racism. This is a difficult trait to navigate around when marrying into and working with an immigrant family in the racially-charged environment of an impoverished suburb resisting the inclusion of the great influx of so many “New Australians”.

Is Clarry’s resistance to naming Gino as a business partner rather than an employee, or failing to introduce him to others as his brother-in-law, things he does out of legitimate concern for ruffling the feathers of other Aussies’ bigotry to the extent that would be bad for business, or is it an expression of a more personal prejudice, however repressed? In contrast to his passionate but largely genial in-laws, Clarry’s good-natured exterior tends to disguise a mean temper, which comes out largely around his equally excitable wife. As integrated into this family as he seems to be, Maria reports that Clarry is not above slinging epithets such as “dago” and “wop” when spousal arguments reach a certain pitch.

As a play of its time presented in quite conventional linear naturalism, it is perhaps best to avoid going much further into plot specifics, as the climax of the dramatic storyline is a large part of the thrust of the show’s impact. This is crystalised by the dénouement of how the outcomes effect its characters. Although portraying a very different time in Australia’s long and rocky history of immigration, it now seems almost quaint in an era of prolonged politicisation of these issues. For many, there is a profound national shame over the former White Australia Policy (which would still have been partly in effect at the time of this play), and our ongoing treatment of refugees via offshore detention remains a major national issue.

Even unavoidably viewing The Shifting Heart via the lens of that ensuing history, the play still speaks to how immigration in Australia remains a contentious, wonderful, difficult and evolving reality of our ever more multicultural community. Descendants of Italian immigrants from this generation will likely find some greater level of personal resonance to the characters and possibly the story presented here. Yet the play’s portrayal of the struggles of assimilation, acceptance, maintaining cultural pride and suffering the wounds of daily prejudice may still speak to the Australians from many different national backgrounds, across different generations of the immigrant experience.

This is a solid production, which embraces the play’s traditionalism without awkwardly updating or radicalising the text, but presents it in the conventional dramatic mode in which it was conceived. The richly detailed naturalist set presents the back view of a two-story suburban house in sore need of renovation, with a functional kitchen and upper-storey components from which actors frequently lean out to yell down to those in the backyard at the footlights. The starkly differing neighbours’ fences complete the picture, creating a palpable environment in which the action takes place.

Confidently directed by Kim Hardwick, the cast is uniformly strong, led by familiar faces Dina Panozzo and Tony Poli as Momma and Poppa Bianchi. They centre the play with an emotional veracity which their character’s somewhat stereotypical gesturing and “mamma mia!” style of dialogue could easily veer into dated caricatures, were they in less capable hands. Relative newcomer Lucas Linehan delivers a very strong performance as Clarry, shouldering a lot of the play’s more subtle moments of internal struggle, as this alternately voluble and laconic character tries to reconcile his competing impulses.

The other young actors David Soncin and Ariadne Sgouros likewise do well in the somewhat smaller roles of Gino and Maria, while Laurence Coy is very good in the alternately pathetic and unsettling doubled roles as neighbour Donny Pratt and the menacingly apathetic Detective Sergeant Lukie.

Particular praise must go to the stalwart Di Smith, who excels in the role of Leila Pratt, the hard-bitten and bleakly humorous neighbour with a heart of gold, who rises above her own personal strife to pitch in and help the Bianchis in their hour of need. It is a warm, nuanced, and deeply engaging performance which almost steals the show with its understated wry pathos.

Although no theatrical revelation nor a notably fresh take on a potentially creaky old play, this is a very robust rendition for something of a modest Aussie classic. In not attempting to reinvent the wheel, this production’s capable stagecraft and strong acting allow Richard Beynon’s text to speak for itself, and reach across the decades to allow us to consider how much Australia has changed, and how much it has, perhaps, also stayed the same.

White Box Theatre/Seymour Centre presents
The Shifting Heart
by Richard Beynon

Director Kim Hardwick

Venue: Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre | N/A
Dates: 8 – 24 March 2018
Tickets: $45 – $35



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