Due to a technical problem in the small tent aptly called “The Pocket” at Stirling, artist and audience were perspiring or sweating, depending on gender, on that 35 deg. day when That Daring Australian Girl took to the tiny stage. But true theatre troopers both on and off stage endure all for a good show, and this is one. We’re asked to “shuffle up” because it’s a full house and “be friends with your neighbours” which is easy in such a friendly and close environment – even without air conditioning on that hot day. But, as I’ve said before, theatre people, those who perform in it and those who go to see them, are special.
On the tiny stage, there’s a hat rack with all that the artist needs to costume herself, an old fashioned upright reading lamp, a duval mirror, old chairs and a rug, bright flowers on an old desk, books, sheet music, a sea-going wooden chest, a piece of paper titled “White Star Line” a “Daily Mirror”, ink and an empty carafe, a cluttered scene to illustrate a life-time. The footlights are old fashioned bulbs set into cut out soup tins. A cluttered stage, a cluttered auditorium and broken down air conditioning. Born in Bowden, near suburb of Adelaide, Muriel Matters would have dealt with that as does Joanna Hartstone who wrote and performs the solo role. Joanna, dressed in a fashionable frilly high necked long sleeved cream blouse highlighted by a large brooch at the neck, a lime skirt, sensible black shoes and, some of the time, a hat and scarf, sparkles right from the beginning and captures what the mercurial Muriel must have been like to have achieved what she did.
Muriel knows what her fate is expected to be which is to transfer her self, her money and her own will from her father to a husband. What else could a girl born in 1877 expect of life? She learns elocution, for which she reads poetry and prose particularly that of Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw and Robert Browning. When she reads Ibsen’s “The Doll’s House” she begins to think about where the rigid rules for women from within her own home and from everybody’s other mother, Queen Victoria, are taking her, because she wants to act and everyone tells her that all actresses are undignified and a lot of worse things too. She studies music at Adelaide University and uses both her elocutionist skills as a speaker and her musical ability to give recitals in Adelaide first and then Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Joanna’s fine diction and high spirited delivery of this bubbly character keeps us very interested in the young woman she is portraying.
Muriel’s beloved brother Len has gone off to the Boer War and at 28 she decides to make the break she so longs for and, for 19 pounds which she accrues bit by bit, she buys a ticket for the two-month voyage to London. Armed with letters of introduction to George Bernard Shaw and William Archer this is where she can follow her heart and do as she will, away from the restrictions of conservative Adelaide. Freedom, at last! But London is expensive, overcrowded with excess population and there are too many performers looking for work. The city is unforgiving when things go wrong and uncaring of the poverty stricken, the beggars crawling at the feet of immense luxury. The resilience on which she is learning to rely comes to her aid. Australian, Adam Lindsay Gordon sums it up for her.
“Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own,” she recites.
Muriel gets work including some journalism and is told that she, an Australian, sounds more British than the British – no doubt due to the elocution lessons – for an Australian accent is taboo in her line of business. She mixes with free thinkers and socialists and then, having given a recital in his home, she is challenged by exiled anarchist Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin who asks to what end is she using her undoubted talent. To what end? A personal career? A name in the artistic world? “Art is not an end of life, but a means.” he tells her. “In that moment,” she says “my entire mental outlook changed.” She joins the Women’s Freedom League and in 1908 organises and leads a caravan tour through south-eastern England, speaking about women’s enfranchisement, distributing leaflets and setting up branches of the WFL. On that tour she meets Violet Tillard who becomes her dear friend. It is with no small pride that she tells the often hostile crowds that in her home State, South Australia, women have had the right to vote in State elections for 14 years and for 6 years all women had been granted suffrage in Commonwealth elections.
It was the beginning of the heady, courageous, often violent, cruel and dispiriting “Votes for Women” campaign of which Muriel Matters was in the forefront. Joanne Hartstone tells it with passion, excitement, joy and sorrow and makes Muriel Matters come alive, this woman who gave so much of her life to a cause which had been won here but was so long coming in the mother country. She was indeed That Daring Australian Girl and we are fortunate to have Joanne remind us in a very riveting way of one more Australian we remember with pride. Catch it at Holden Street Theatres.
Joanne Hartstone presents
That Daring Australian Girl
by Joanne Hartstone
Venue: Holden Street Theatres | 34 Holden Street, Hindmarsh SA
Dates: 4 – 18 March 2018
Tickets: $28 – $25
Bookings: 1300621255 | holdenstreettheatres.com