Review by Sandra Harman
Children of the Black Skirt by one of Australia’s leading playwrights, Angela Betzien is an evocative and emotionally engaging work that explores important aspects of this country’s history, of reconciliation, and the healing power of storytelling.
When 5 young children stumble out of the Australian bush and come across an abandoned orphanage, they step into a timeless world haunted by sprits of the past. As they explore their surroundings, opening old suitcases, peering into disused rooms and dressing up in tattered clothing they transform into various residents of the institution from the first convict boys brought to Australia through to children from the stolen generation. All are governed by the cruel, heartless governess Miss Emily Greenant (the Black Skirt) who roams the corridors with giant scissors at her hip. One by one the children take on each memory experience, telling and acting out the various stories until finally, the spirits of the orphanage’s trapped forgotten children are released.
With themes indicating sexual assault, child neglect, child abuse, oppression, suicide and death this play is a gothic fairytale with bite, told with both gravity and humour. It is a well-researched piece containing many truths regarding the dislocation of the Australian psyche and the loss of connection with our own history, the treatment of indigenous people since settlement, and the culture of silence and cover ups within religious and government institutions and the resulting impact on the children living within those walls.
As the abandoned children and in turn the adults of the piece, the 5 strong female ensemble had no trouble navigating the physical and vocal demands of playing multiple roles. Their work was highly disciplined, with impressive vocal and accent work, and each character was well delineated. There was a certain joy for the audience in being able to watch these actors transform into each character on stage using simple costume, voice, and physical changes.
As the Black Skirt / Harold Horrocks, Lisa Hickey gave a riveting performance, with no dialogue attributed to the governess, her physical stage presence was in turn terrifying and captivating as she commanded the space and the ‘children’ using only the clapping of her hands, while the role of the Government Inspector, Horrocks, allowed Hickey’s comedic timing to come into play and gave her vocals a workout as this character and what they represented in the play was mocked with high buffoonery during an indulgent morning tea scene.
Malika Savory showed her versatility in the multiple roles of the young one, Tom and Lizzie. She particularly shone as the young one, new to the orphanage who is bullied and shamed as she struggles to adjust to the rules of her harsh environment, bringing a vulnerability and fragility to the role which helped to highlight the lack of compassion these children endured.
Shahnee Hunter made excellent use of her wonderful vocal qualities as she played the various characters of the old one, Rosie, Lucy and Ruby with ease. Her Rosie (the laundry woman) functioned as mentor and protector of the new arrival and showed us her strong storytelling abilities and emotional range.
Giving a strong performance throughout was Makeal Bobart as John and Iris. Her character and accent work were exceptional and her presence in all the orphanage scenes kept the energy high.
Also consistently strong, both physically and vocally, was Vivien Whittle as Maggie, and Lizzie’s mother, in particular her interpretation of a loving mother desperately fighting to keep her children fed and a roof over their heads but who ultimately loses them to the authorities in a heart rendering scene.
Director Helen Strube has crafted a finely tuned, impressive production, full of beautiful visuals and symbolism. She expertly directs an ensemble of emerging and established artists, and the use of the performance space that runs the breadth of the church is clever. Items of furniture and props are multi-purposed to great effect, in particular the use of white sheets as more than just bedding - from a swaddled baby to the flight of a released child’s soul - have impact. Strube has a rich history with this play having been aware of its development 20 years ago when it was first commissioned by the Queensland Arts Council, so her passion and understanding of the text was evident.
Set design, influenced by artists such as Russell Drysdale and Frederick McCubbin, by Bill Haycock was evocative of both the Australian outback and an abandoned institution providing a perfect canvas for the action. The representation of the Australian bush from which the children emerge at the beginning was reminiscent of a three-dimensional Drysdale painting and the staging within the institution was perfect. Costumes (also designed by Haycock) were appropriately muted and made of simple fabrics, the colour scheme of which was carried throughout the whole setting.
The original soundscape by composer Peter Goodwin evoked exactly the right mood and was inspired by influences from Goodwin’s childhood, such as the scratchiness and crackles of old records. Layers of different sounds were used to create the foreboding presence of the orphanage and eerie sounds of the Australian landscape, the spirits of the orphaned children, and the echoing cry of the Black Skirts baby, Unique to this production was the inclusion of real stories by survivors of institutional care, snippets of which have been woven throughout the play via the soundscape.
Lighting and Vision designer Nathaniel Knight created a dusty, moody interior which when required created fearful shadows in the corners. Highly effective was the lighting used on the Governess as she silently appeared in the background with her infant child. Both sound and lighting cues were expertly handled by Dan Hallen.
This is classic Australian Gothic theatre at it’s best. Originally in the works since 2021 but delayed due to Covid and lockdowns, it has been a long journey bringing this current production to Brisbane audiences, but every play has its time, and for this incarnation that time is now. Presented by Lost Child Ensemble and The Curtors, Children of the Black Skirt has multiple performances until July 23rd so there is only a short window of opportunity to see this stunning production.