That Daring Australian Girl
Written and performed by Joanne Hartstone
Holden Street Theatres
Until March 18
Muriel Matters, the Adelaide-born suffragette, her name itself a slogan, was a most remarkable woman. Her progress from Parkside High School and the Music Conservatorium of the University of Adelaide to the performance stages and, even more dramatically, the political arenas of London, is fascinating to follow. Writer and performer, Joanne Hartstone knows this only too well and her monologue, celebrating the young woman referred to in the international press as “That Daring Australian Girl”, is a winning tribute.
Dressed (by Nikki Fort) in the Edwardian garb of the day – demure blouse, long skirt and scarf-tethered millinery – Hartstone presents a woman with intelligence, determination and a gift for the performative. Her early life in Australia is crisply described- her training in music and elocution in her home town, touring with the Robert Brough theatre company from Sydney, moving to Perth and then momentously, in 1905 at the age of 28, getting together 19 quid to buy her passage to London.
Joanne Hartstone gives a rich portrait of a woman with a sense of purpose and a shrewd activism.
Working not only as a performer in London, she added journalism to her skills and interviewed the playwright of the hour, George Bernard Shaw. Matters was well familiar with current trends in theatre. Like so many, she had read and been profoundly affected by Ibsen’s The Doll’s House. But it was a meeting with the émigré Russian anarchist, Prince Peter Kropotkin that proved significant when he challenged her to consider that the purpose of art is not individual success but to reveal a wider truth. It was then, like an apostle of activism, she vowed to dedicate her talents to the Women’s Freedom League.
Joanna Hartstone, with well-judged direction from Nicholas Collett (and nicely understated period set design by Tom Kitney) presents her protagonist as a silent film heroine – complete with projected white-on-black captions incorporating press quotes and chapter titles – The Prisoner, The Balloon.
And it is that kind of history. Matters arrived in London, convinced – as a citizen of South Australia where universal suffrage had been law since 1894 – that votes for women was a dead cert inevitability. This buoyed her throughout – when padlocking herself to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons, serving more than thirty days hard labour in Holloway Prison, and intrepidly hiring a dirigible air balloon (emblazoned with Votes or Women on one side) to shower 25 kilos of leaflets on the people of London, since it was unlawful to distribute them at street level.
With her brisk, cheery, almost Mary Poppins-perfect elocution, Joanne Hartstone gives a rich portrait of a woman with a sense of purpose and a shrewd activism. She also presents Matters’s complicated private life – her deep friendship with “Tilly”, fellow suffragette, Violet Tillard, and her elusive dealings with two fiancés.
It is a bigger-than-life biography, of undaunted accomplishments, exuberantly and entertainingly celebrated. That Daring Australian Girl is heading to Edinburgh later in the year. Let’s hope, unlike Muriel herself, she spends some extended time in Australian theatres as well.
The Origin of Species: John Hinton’s Scientrilogy
Written and performed by John Hinton
Holden Street Theatres
Until March 18
The Origin of Species, is also a bio-drama. In fact, a biology drama, which takes comic liberties with its subject – the founder of Evolutionary science, the 19th century naturalist, Charles Darwin – but to admirably serious purpose.
John Hinton is a livewire from the UK and his Darwin, complete with long signature beard, is a mix of fascinating detail and comic anachronism. His Victorian education is solemnly listed – Shrewsbury Grammar, where he studies Latin and acoustic guitar. This is, of course, a cue for one of many of Hinton musical interludes which amusingly pile on both information and extruded, sometimes excruciating, wordplay.
With plenty of banter with the audience, the amiably personable Hinton describes Darwin’s intellectual wanderings – into medicine, then theology, never quite finding his niche. It was the encouragement, at Cambridge, from John Stevens Henslow which steered our hero scientist into the worlds of botany and zoology.
With frenzied comedy, Hinton describes Darwin (and the epoch’s) fascination with specimen collection and taxonomy. Darwin’s beetles, barnacles and spiders are all copious items on the agenda.
Hinton also cleverly dramatises the race for discovery, or rather to claim the notion, of natural selection. In 1858 Darwin’s friend, Alfred Russel Wallace was proposing very similar ideas and they were subsequently identified as joint authors in Darwin’s paradigm-shifting classic On the Origin of Species in 1859.
John Hinton’s entire Scientrilogy is not to be missed.
Hinton’s account of the Voyage of the Beagle is filled with wonderful nerdy detail. Darwin’s bitter disagreements with the mariner, Captain Fitzroy, his key discovery of Charles Lyell’s crucial work on geological time, the bountiful evidence of species adaptation in the Galapagos Islands, are described with zany embellishment. Including audience participation. To demonstrate the significance of Darwin’s discovery of thirteen different species of finch, the audience is summoned to its feet to act out the salient details.
Hinton’s songs, a hyper-manic blend of Gilbert and Sullivan and Eric Idle, propel the proceedings towards the recognition that even humans are part of this evolutionary morphosis – and another group hootenanny emerges: “Don’t be shy mates/ I’m a primate/and I’m proud.”
John Hinton’s entire Scientrilogy is not to be missed. His Einstein show, Relativitively Speaking is rich in protons and irony (and has the best songs.) The Element in the Room, his startling account of Marie Curie and radium (both miracle and scientific catastrophe) is also outstanding. John Hinton is a treat. He is charmingly funny and you learn stuff.
The Octagon, Gluttony
Until March 18
And now for something completely Red. Rouge, from Highwire the people who brought us Papillon, has a new bag of tricks, acrobatics and an opera soprano in a very red frock. Singer Isabel Hertaeg opens with vintage Doris Day – “If you really love me say/But if you don’t dear, confess/ And please don’t tell me /Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.” Acrobats Annalise Moore, Chris Carlos and Paul Westbrook perform a range of handstands and flips followed by Westbrook’s return with ostrich feathers and a fanfare from Big Spender.
Neatly directed for pace and variety by Elena Kirschbaum, Rouge is a louche blend of risk and risqué.
A larger-than-human martini glass is duly served for an esoteric line in foot juggling as Tara Silcock spins a series of brollies to the enthusiastic blast of Rihanna’s You Can Stand Under My Umbrella “…ella,ella,eh,eh,eh”. Chris Carlos returns with chairs and with some stacking and ballast assistance from an audience member, cantilevers them perilously and proceeds to stand expertly balanced on top of four of them.
Wearing only a lampshade, Tara Silcock returns for a sort of daffy Man Ray version of Norah Jones’s (Come on home and) Turn Me On. Annalise Moore, Andre Augustus and Chris Carlos are back for some clever hand jumps to be supplanted by coloured lit hoops from Silcock and a round of hooping from Westbrook.
Rouge is slick, fast and full of thrills. Carlos chews fire sticks and spins them disconcertingly close to his very flammable skin. There is whip-cracking discipline from Silcock, breakdancing, a full-throated operatic aria to tickle the fancy and an impressive finale of triple headstands to keep us on edge. Neatly directed for pace and variety by Elena Kirschbaum, Rouge is a louche blend of risk and risqué.
Murray Bramwell is an Adelaide-based reviewer. Visit murraybramwell.com