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Review: Hydra at The Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

By Lisa Lanzi

It is a rare thing to attend the theatre and all at once enjoy the work, be disturbed and provoked, be uncomfortable, be moved and enchanted. This co-production from Queensland Theatre Company and State Theatre Company SA is blessed with an all-round ‘dream team’ and Adelaide audiences are in for a treat for this season following the Hydra premiere in Queensland in March.

It matters not if you are familiar with the history of the colourful, rich characters depicted in Hydra or the writing of Charmian Clift and George Johnston, the narrative and the atmosphere on stage is transporting. After experiencing this play you may find yourself inspired to search out the writing, either re-visiting the authors’ works or encountering them for the first time. Certainly, the stories of Charmian and George’s life on the Greek island of Hydra (Ídhra) and the other celebrities who visited, and also befriended them, makes for some salacious reading.

Clift’s notion of life was that if you ask nothing of it, “the soul retires, the flame of life flickers, burns lower, for want of air”. Playwright Sue Smith has crafted a script in possession of delicacy and beauty, passion and wretchedness and definitely captures the essence and ‘aliveness’ of Australia’s own, slightly scandalous, literary duo. The writing interweaves Clift’s and Johnston’s own words with Smith’s own poetic and intricate language - a gift the actors can immerse themselves in. The play seizes upon the couple’s idealistic cravings for adventure and their search for an authentic yet cosmopolitan life away from the crushing and parochial essence that they perceived was Australia’s artistic and social setting in the 1950s.

With his wonderful presence, Nathan O’Keefe is the anchor of this unfolding story as the son, Martin Johnston. This character guides us through the time shifts in the story and the emotional journey of the parents. He is also a quiet, lurking observer and makes us wonder how the children actually survived as their parents indulged their bohemian fantasies and threw their energies into their writing above all else.

Anna McGahan and Bryan Probets navigate the tempests as the dreamer and iconoclast Charmian Clift and a tubercular, increasingly needy George Johnston with nuanced assurance. We see these two characters at several points in their lives: as young and ‘in lust’, as each other’s’ muse and great love, as boisterous, partying and witty drunks, and as a warring and vicious couple at the end of their tether with the other’s perceived shortcomings. One noticeable strength of these two fine actors was their impeccable physicality which altered as needed to match the poetic almost pastoral passages or the bridled violence of the inebriated scenes.

The roles of Ursula and Vic offset the two main characters and are based on Sidney Nolan and second wife Cynthia Hansen who also visited the island of Hydra and befriended Charmian and George. Tiffany Lyndall-Knight shines as the feisty Ursula (and briefly as a quirky, fun, American tourist called Lorelei). Her confident and shrewd persona is a brilliant foil to the quixotic leads. Hugh Parker lent a distinguished and wise air to Vic, the artist who has to witness his friends’ poverty, domestic downfall and early career failures as his own career soars.

Kevin Spink brought three very different characters (and accents) to life, most notably Jean-Claude, the dubious French artist who is entranced by Charmian. This character drifts in and out of scenes and eventually incites George to a drunken rage. Jean-Claude also appears in a whimsical incident with Charmian, the audience witness to a late night assignation on a rocky shore. He observes then interrupts her time under the stars where she admits to the stressors of her daily life and not finding the time to be alone.

Director Sam Strong has shaped this work with a respectful understanding of the breadth of Sue Smith’s words and vision. He has allowed the beautiful language to feature and guided the actors with a subtle yet sure hand. It has to be said that the set design by Vilma Mattila also stars and obviously provided wonderful opportunities for the director to shape the unfolding plot with almost choreographic vision at times. In harmony with the unpretentious yet sweeping and mostly white architectural set on different levels, Nigel Levings has created a stunning lighting design which carries us to different times of day, different countries and contrasting moods.

Composer Quentin Grant has contributed an understated but integral sound design which complements the entire production by grounding it, and the audience, in place and time.

This is such an exciting production. Go. Support our beleaguered theatre industry and profession by being present and let us demand more new Australian works of this calibre.

Images Supplied

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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