Review by Lisa Lanzi
This world premiere production will speak volumes if you’ve ever been immersed in perfectionism, gestation, birthing, or mothering at any or all stages of those tumultuous journeys. Womenfolk will identify with some if not all the themes and emotions presented on stage and some empathetic fathers too will laugh, cry, and sigh at the familiar confluences of parenting and partner-hood. Anna Goldsworthy has taken her novel/memoir apart and put it back together as a play, with original music composed by Alan John. Now director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide, the author began thinking about the concept of Welcome to Your New Life (published 2013) in the months after giving birth to her first child.
Erin James performance in the role of Anna is both sensitive and illuminating. This character and their emotional range is captured perfectly and James’ captivating voice soars in the Alan John songs framing the narrative. Sometimes poetic, sometimes dreamlike, and sometimes fraught, the quality of Goldsworthy’s writing is clear. Indeed the audience reactions to different emotions was as entertaining as the text. Matt Crook and Kathryn Adams proficiently complete the trio on stage playing multiple characters both real and imagined, stereotypical or sympathetic, and there seemed a palpable camaraderie amongst the cast. One recurring character is the grandmother (Adams), and illustrates a poignant contrast between the two extremities of birth and death. Crook and James as the central couple Anna and Nick portray moments in a relationship as pregnancy, birth, and childhood impact and profoundly alter their lives.
Direction by Shannon Rush (State Theatre’s Artistic Associate since February 2023) is sensitive and nuanced with beautiful choices made as other characters are introduced through the artful role play of Adams and Crook. The decision not to employ any fake pregnancy ‘bellies’ was a welcome one as the use of language, gesture, and physicality was enough to invite an audience to the understanding of gravidity at each stage. As the infant becomes a toddler, addressing the audience members as the child was also an informed choice, possibly uncomfortable for the person under such scrutiny but comedic for the rest of us. Rush’s utilization of several over-large numbered toy ‘blocks’ in a neutral woody shade only adds to the development of the story. The blocks are manipulated to subtly denote the passing of time, chronicling the various timelines of gestation and the baby’s growth.
The set as a whole from production designer Simon Greer has a spacious, over-large essence with the actors needing to reach up to open the huge double doors just as young children would. In the first act, there are colours added to the space through shapes (as if a mobile) hanging from a central light fixture (again very large), a centred, circular checkerboard floor rug, and alphabet wall posters. In the second act the set is stripped bare and we are left in the ‘no-man’s land’ of neutral greys as the atmosphere shifts due to states of anxiety, exhaustion, doubt, but eventually hope. One muted grey-upholstered chair remains in play for the whole production serving many purposes, including a birthing space or a nursing chair.
The pacing of the first act is fast and furious and gently comedic compared to the more sombre developments in the second act. The relatable comedy within the text stems from the plethora of ‘advice’ and relentless questioning a newly pregnant woman or new mother might face: birth plans, pain relief, gender, ‘natural’ versus medical interventions, as well as the vastly different landscape a capable woman or couple must traverse as new parents, and so much more. Despite the pace and high quality of the production, it occasionally felt overlong. There is much made of the internal machinations of a mother’s anxiety, and rightly so, but the composting toilet scene is a little long and ponderous, however funny the idea. Lighting by Gavin Norris and sound design from Andrew Howard adds subtle layers to the narrative. From the illusion of vivid, bright sunshine on a typical 46 degree day in South Australia to the deep, disturbing, and almost subliminal pulsing sound underlying Anna’s terrible state of worry, these artists’ contributions shine.
For so many females, myself included, pregnancy, birthing, and motherhood is a foreign country, the borders intensely patrolled by those ‘in the know’. Your admittance is granted only upon receiving a positive pregnancy test, but even then the mysteries are many and the mores tricky to negotiate. This play frames the rollercoaster of emotions a mother might traverse with arresting honesty and some illustrative, poetic language.
Stories like Welcome To Your New World NEED to be told, should definitely be heard, and indeed celebrated and discussed. Much like the mythology around, and the blatant denial of, the epidemic of depression and anxiety in our modern world, the stages of female life (puberty, pregnancy/child-raising, menopause) are so often sequestered. All genders should strive to understand the complexities of emotion and connection inherent in Goldsworthy’s memoir, alongside the myriad joys and challenges. Additionally, younger women need to be granted a better sense of all the experiences they might one day face.
Image Credit: Matt Byrne