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Review: Somewhere South at Chippen Street Theatre

Review by Cynthia Ning

In a sunburnt country, a writer makes his journey down south and is half a world away from his home in England. He seeks new adventures and experiences to help rekindle his love of writing and then eventuate to his book Kangaroo. Geoffrey Sykes gives us an intimate and emotionally charged glimpse into D.H Lawrence’s life in Australia.

The Muse and narrator (Katrina Maskell) gently glide onto the stage to present the tale of D.H Lawrence’s arrival to Australia with his wife Frieda. Whimsical and fairy-like, she speaks in rhyme and riddles as she paints the picture of their life in NSW Coast Village, Thirroul arriving by train dressed in their best.

Lawrence (Shaun Foley) greets the new land with excitement, is energetic in his delivery and welcomes this chapter with open arms albeit with a persistent cough. Frieda (Mel Day) disagrees and shows obvious discomfort in being in the middle of nowhere by openly complaining about how little there is in terms of shops, houses, and bustling streets that she is used to in England but, she agrees to stay for the sake of her husband.

Frieda doesn’t have an English accent rather, she speaks with a mixed European accent. Her performance is confident and direct with her delivery which works well in contrast to the thick Australian accents of their laid-back neighbours Victoria (Katrina Maskell) and Jack (Dominic Collier). They quickly become acquainted with one another and discuss the politics of the relatively new country that we now call Australia.

There was a clever use of the projector which displayed portraits from artist Garry Shead from his Lawrence series to carry the narrative through multiple scenery changes. We also get a glimpse of the man himself, with still black and white images from D.H Lawrence’s life in Australia with his wife and his neighbours.

The props act as an anchor to the time and residency of Frieda and Lawrence upon arrival. Pen and paper are used throughout the play as a constant reminder to write and speak to the fictional characters Lawrence has manifested over long nights, fretting about each of their details. The house the couple stay in is repurposed on multiple scene changes together with the projected images are shown to be an effective choice by the stage manager and prop designer.

The actors were clear and audible with their dialogue which made the story easy to follow and allowed us to focus closer on the relationship Lawrence developed over his stay. The state of his body and mind begins to unravel. Shaun’s sustained subtle cough brings the viewers back to understand why he made the trip to Australia, which was to help recover from his illness. The twitches and restless movement showed how the land and sea made a deep impact on him which brought him closer to Frieda, who feels refreshed and reinvigorated by their new surroundings. There is magic in the air and drama to follow.

Dominic is superb in his delivery, embodying multiple unique characters (Kangaroo, Struthers, Jack, Ezra Pound) with ease and nailing each accent. Having Dominic present all these big personalities was a bold choice due to the level of difficulty and the complex relationship they played in Lawrence’s life both in fiction and in his every day.

There are sensual themes in his books that allude to a romance sparked by Victoria’s interest in Lawrence. Frieda notices the distance created by the move and they have their marital squabbles and arguments arising from potential infidelity and sudden request to move overseas again. Mel proves to be a powerful force showing Frieda is sharp as a tack and is quick to point out his irritable behaviour, caring for him during his most vulnerable moments showing she understands Lawrence better than he knows.

Katrina embodies the blackbird through interpretive dance and as a physical manifestation in Lawrence’s mind with each encounter. The scene is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, ‘The Raven’. Lawrence reveals his struggles and desire to leave Australia after only 12 short weeks. Shaun is very giving as an actor as he allows for the dialogue from each character to come to him before reacting to them. These aspects of each character combined well for effective performance.

The play is a slow burn but easily digestible with a smooth-moving pace with each actor understanding their character's drive and prompts from one another, well done!

The minor detail that took me away from the play is the suit Lawrence wears. It is a little too modern in design and takes a bit away from the story timeline - This is apparent with the black and white photos depicting real-life people and showing the difference in dress style. Lighting is simple and doesn’t shift too much - However, it was hard to see some of the projected images at times due to the bright lights shining on the white cloth during some scenes.

D.H Lawrence’s works are well known and loved in his home country of England. His book, Lady Chatterley's Lover was briefly mentioned in a romantic encounter with Margo Durrell and visitor Michael in The Genesian production of My Family and Other Animals where she quotes him doing ‘wonderful things in the desert’. Gerald Durrell's brother, Lawrence Durrell would go on to be a successful writer himself later in life.

And with that, as Lawrence and Frieda stand at the Sydney Wharf waiting for their boat they come to a visual clearance where he finds himself enchanted with the people and culture of The First People of the Eora nation as Frieda sees a new beginning at starting over again. Lawrence continues his search for Somewhere South in New Mexico.

A well-rounded niche play for anyone with a keen mind for Australian history or fans of D.H Lawrence's work. I would recommend anyone to come and immerse themselves in Lawrence’s fleeting but profound visit to Australia.

Images Supplied


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