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Review: MAUREEN: HARBINGER OF DEATH at The Space Theatre, for The Adelaide Festival

Review By Lisa Lanzi

As an artist/creator who has worked often with phenomenal elders through the mediums of dance, song, and theatre, this production claimed my heart. Not nearly enough people engage in conversation with older folk in our society and it is a great loss as there is much to learn and plenty to enjoy. I love the concept held in some cultures where elders are highly valued for their wisdom and their many contributions to things like child-minding, or art and craft; and I am saddened that, for the most part, this is not so in our society.

WAPPA trained and a recipient of the 2016 Sydney Theatre Critic’s Best Newcomer Award, Jonny Hawkins is both writer and performer of Maureen: Harbinger of Death. In 2019, continuing their independent collaboration, Hawkins and Nell Ranney (co-creator and director) continued the development of the play as part of the Bundanon Residency. Leonora Carrington’s surrealist book The Hearing Trumpet (1974) was part of the inspiration for the show as were works of Joan Didion and Helen Garner, and Hawkins’ respect and admiration for older women.

Wearing ochre jeans and black long sleeved top, Hawkins entered the performance space with grace and delivered the best, most entertaining ‘turn off your phones’ message I’ve ever encountered. They then explained that ‘Maureen’ is a mix of fact and fiction, a ‘little bit … from a lot of women’ they have known and loved. Removing their shoes, they continued toward the sumptuous, patterned set, telling of visiting an older friend of their mum’s and climbing the stairs in a musty, grubby King’s Cross apartment building. After the application of red lipstick and addition of some sparkling jewellery, Hawkins carefully lifted heavily patterned fabric from the chair, revealed to be a long skirt (Design by Isabel Hudson). Purposefully and deliberately wrapping and tying it around their waist, the performer melts into a chair upholstered in the same pattern. Sitting then in front of a backdrop and atop a ‘carpet’, all in the same luxe pattern, the figure is merged with and integral to her surroundings. The subtle and exquisite transformation complete, Hawkins now presents as Maureen and the tales begin.

The power of this actor is such that there is no doubt we are now in the presence of this doyenne / matriarch / queen-of-all-she-surveys. There is a verbal ‘tour’ of the home, the lighting of a cigarette with a little assistance from an audience member, and then the almost stream of consciousness narrative flows into being. Hawkins’ physical adroitness conveys much with just a few simple gestural shifts: the slightly arthritic hands, the elbow lean into the arm of the chair with hand to head and twist of the body, the stylish cigarette hold. Their voice too takes on a suitable ‘Sydney’ timbre. If you are old enough to recall Jeannie Little and John-Michael Howson and their ear-splitting drawls, Maureen channels a little of both but with impeccable restraint - just the right amount of accent and nasality in certain passages of text or in an exclamation.

There are uncountable and sparkling one-liners, Sydney-influenced aphorisms, and hilarious non sequiturs, as well as amusing but wise advice. Take these for instance: “Be kind, not polite”, a “personality bypass”, a description of nursing homes as “above ground cemeteries”, and taking her coffee black “because sugar is for the weak, and milk is for pussies”, “pick better delusions”. Hawkins is mesmerising as they plough through the story peppered with adored characters from Maureen’s past and so much more. We are told of a ‘gift’ permitting her knowledge of when someone will die and the revelation of a book of names where she has recorded such information; then subsequently its handing over to the audience to choose names whereupon a story will emerge from our ‘harbinger’, as a friend dubbed her. Two darker passages occur (kudos for Nick Schlieper’s lighting design) when Maureen drifts into a dream state and it is here that the brilliant sound score from Steve Toulmin adds depth and unease with its very low frequency presence.

Hawkins’ densely layered writing is finely shaped, edited, and polished and transfers to spoken narrative flawlessly; quite the lesson in excellence and crafting a one-person monologue. Clarity sits beside humour, poignancy next to the slightly crazy but you cannot bear to miss one moment of it. As the performer, Hawkins is connected and sharply focussed expressing the entirety of this older Maureen; her dignity, intelligence, silly or dark humour, and her inexorable kindness, a woman I would love to know.

In her home, Maureen has a large painting of Persephone (it is referred to but we don’t see it). The mythical tale bothers our host, and as she says: “if the myths don’t serve you, change them”, and she does. Maureen’s highly embellished, contemporary version gives the goddess way more agency over her destiny, just as she herself has embraced and directed her own life and destiny.

With a methodical dignity, Hawkins deconstructs ‘Maureen’, shedding all accoutrements, and exits in their own identity. Lights down but this memorable production will live on.

Image Supplied


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