Growing up with an English Mum, I was fed a steady diet of English literary classics and it was the great British novelists who inhabited my early years. Writers, to my young mind, were either from the United Kingdom or great Americans who wrote sprawling classics. It wasn’t until my senior years in high school that two Australian authors opened up a whole new world to me and let me dare to dream that I could one day become a writer. The first was George Johnston who wrote ‘My Brother Jack’. Here, at last, was an Australian author writing about the Australia that I knew.
The scenes within his pages were familiar. I had slept out in converted verandahs with mosquitos buzzing around me. My Mum had spent hours carefully ironing the army uniforms of my uncle before he returned to war in a foreign land. I was like David Meredith, the sensitive observer, acutely aware of the subtle and not so subtle shifts in family life. The men who inhabited my life were Jack. To this day my friends still tease me when I re-read ‘ My Brother Jack’ every few years. To me it is the ‘ Great Australian Novel ‘.
The other author who inspired me was Miles Franklin after reading ‘ My Brilliant Career’. I learned that I could not only be an Australian author, but also a female Australian author. It is fitting that George Johnston received the Miles Franklin Award for his work in the year of my birth, 1964.
In Hydra, Queensland Theatre has taken the true love story of George Johnston and his beloved wife, Charmian Clift and chronicles their life on this idyllic Greek Island. The pair were writers, dreamers and free spirits who were determined to carve out a bohemian, artistic life in this picturesque paradise. For ten years they persevered. Many followed. Friends like artist Sidney Nolan and the musical genius Leonard Cohen were also lured to this paradise. Yet, paradise often comes with a price. The many – headed monsters of jealousy, infidelity, illness and alcoholism rear their heads as Charmian and George write, raise three children and follow their dream, though ultimately turning this story into a Greek tragedy of their own making.
Playwright Sue Smith has brought forth the behind – the- scenes tale of what went wrong in the marriage and minds of these brilliant writers as they struggled to find their way in a new world far from all they had known. The writers left clues as they chronicled their own struggles in their work. Cleverly Sue Smith has delicately weaved their words with her own to paint a vivid picture of their life, love and downfall. With director, Sam Strong, steering the ship, we are swept along with the tale, futilely hoping the ending will change.
I went along with fellow SheSociety writer, Nanny Babe (who is a regular visitor to Greece) on a Queensland evening filled with torrential rain, thunderclaps and lightning which reflected the mood of the relationship portrayed on stage. We both related to the themes – partners giving up their own dreams for those they love, nursing sick loved ones who are in the depths of despair, making compromises and sometimes being the invisible partner in a relationship. Women of the past sacrificed themselves and their ambition for others and ultimately for independent, creative souls, like Clift, that price became too much to bear.
Queensland Theatre stalwart Bryan Probets plays George Johnston in a feverish, tortured performance, so at odds with the personality of the quietly spoken, calm gentleman we congratulate later in the Bille Brown foyer. We initially meet George as the cocky war correspondent wooing the much younger Charmian with his words. He is on top of the world, one of Australia’s most respected writers, until his affair with Charmian forces them to flee the country, first to London, then Hydra and finally home. But we all know we take our problems with us and Probets excels in relaying Johnston’s creative genius, fallibility and descent into the grasp of his chronic illness and alcoholism which twists his mind. Bravo, Bryan.
Experienced actor Anna McGahan IS Charmian Clift. There is no other way to describe it. She inhabits her world, speaks her language and can convey a range of emotions with just a look. At times, I felt her eyes were searing right through me pleading for help. Of course, Anna, is a writer of some renown herself so the angst, passion and struggles faced by Clift are very real to her. She uses her height and range to shift the audience perception and coil herself around the story mesmerising the audience like a snake charmer. I loved watching our Brisbane born talent showcase her range. Welcome home, Anna!
Yet the whole ensemble cast were needed to keep the play moving along , to provide some light and shade and give the audience a respite from the intensity of George and Charmian’s relationship. Hugh Parker ( Noises Off , 39 Steps) plays the affable, much loved artistic talent Sidney Nolan. You get a sense that without the guiding hand of his sensible partner, Ursula ( Tiffany Lyndall – Wright on debut for Queensland Theatre) he too would have spiralled out of control along with his friends. Ray Chong Née delights in his role as the philandering Frenchman Jean Claude before stepping up in the smaller roles of Tony Katsikas and Doctor Anastospoulos.
Nathan O’Keefe is strong as the ill – fated son and poet-Martin Johnston and to me he helped give the play a ‘ My Brother Jack’ feel. His narration was reminiscent of David Meredith’s role as narrator in the novel.
The set was simple, yet so evocative of its Grecian roots. Whitewashed walls hung with garlic to simply denote the taverna, steps leading to a cliff top or room above were an effective way of changing the mood and the lighting as always was superb, just as essential as the characters. I was fascinated when a myriad of bulbs descended from the roof and I am still in awe of this beautiful space for the intimacy it brings.
I was lucky enough to be familiar with the George Johnston and Charmian Clift story and have had a fascination for their work as Australians, icons of Australian writing and yet, ultimately flawed human beings. As the play reached its shocking crescendo the tears formed in my eyes. This is real drama, a true life love story and a glimpse into the lives of those who have paved the way for writers like myself. For some superb acting in an intimate setting look no further than Hydra. This exquisite work will play with your emotions and leave you wanting to know more about this fascinating pair. Hydra will be playing at the Bille Brown Theatre, South Brisbane until April 6.
SheSociety is a site for the women of Australia to share our stories, our experiences, shared learnings and opportunities to connect.