The Theatre on Chester won’t tell you, they are a pretty modest bunch, but that’s sort of my job when I see something to blow a trumpet for. ALFRED DEAKIN IS AFRAID OF THE DARK is a home-grown play about a political figure who we should actually know about. Their production of this nascent new work is gorgeously conceived, well-acted and directed by the writer of the piece with a strong sense of imagery and character. It is a play that piques one’s curiosity and guides you off into google-land with a burning desire to know more about a man whose name we hear often but whose achievements and failures are buried in time.
And the play begins with his resurrection to grand trumpeting audio and a female séance pleading. Alfred Deakin, with a Canberra suburb and a prestigious university named after him, is called from the grave. The spiritualism of the Victorians is well known and Deakin had an interest in it long before he married ‘Pattie’ Brown, her father being a famed supporter of the practice. In this fictitious incarnation of Deakin’s life, he will be surrounded by women. Pattie gives him 3 daughters, his sister Katie is a strong influence in his life and he also meets with the first woman in the Empire to stand as a candidate, Vida Goldstein.
The play must necessarily rise and fall on the performance of its leading man and Martin Bell does sterling work here. Early in the play, when Deakin has been summoned, he speaks directly to us in his confusion, before re-entering the events of his life. In that opening sequence, Bell’s voice work is a masterclass in audience engagement. He can drop down to a whisper and bodies move towards him in the dark, absorbed in his character’s situation.
Bell has created a upright Deakin of considerable warmth and charm, his work inside the family is sweetly indulgently paternal in true Victorian style but there is also a political force to be reckoned with. If there’s a modern conciliation inside the text, Bell uses it to his advantage for audience understanding. This was the man who drafted the White Australia Policy after all and there is much to think upon about his political legacy. This is a theatre with no raking so one looks between the heads in front and I was struck by the thoughtful tilting before me, as ideas were pondered.
As Deakin’s wife Pattie, Julie Moore is terrific as the young, coltish girl but her later Pattie brings a subtle portrayal of marital tension inside the loving partnership. Her use of accent is excellent and in the widowed scene towards the end of the piece, her emotional and physical work shows an excellent interrogation of character and history. It is very moving.
As Vida Goldstein Kellie Martin avoids the tropes and militancy of some interpretations of first wave feminists. It’s a moderated performance, impassioned but not strident. Deakin’s daughters, too, offer well-judged characters. In their very first scene, the different personalities are clearly drawn and differentiated. As Vera, Eloise Aiken hits the vanity of the character dead on and Freya Moore’s Stella has a quiet intelligent, observational quality. As Ivy, Mary Coustas has a lovely scene with her aunt where she really expresses the awakening to reality of someone with a cossetted background. As Aunt Katie, Melissa Reeve has a difficult task and she does such a good job, especially in her understated but revealing micro reactions. Katie is not defined by her spinsterhood yet she has a vivid awareness of the societal expectations on her nieces.
The writer/director Carla Moore’s strong vision never overwhelms the production as the movement glides easily and some of the staged visuals are very gently elided into the play. The portrait scene is delightfully well done to foreground the relationships. However in the penultimate scene of the play, which gives us the grief in his loss, here perhaps the text may need some dramaturgical intervention. This emotional scene would make a sensitive ending but the lengthy modern scene after it overstates the case and seems too naturalistically loose end tying for a non-naturalistic piece.
After the show I went down the google-hole for hours anyway so the final redemption and reconstruction of legacy feels redundant. To finish on the superb emotion of loss would be immeasurably more powerful. This, and a little too much didacticism in places, does not diminish the impact of the whole however. This is a remarkably enjoyable production which, from the first entry of the women, is lyrically elucidated.
The production values are very high as one always expects from Theatre on Chester. The staging and properties are simple and effective. Though the lighting is somewhat patchy, that works fine for a remembered piece and the clever use of purple and green in the palette did not go unnoticed. Projection is used effectively and the sourced sound effects were quite gripping … the reprised men’s voices going “Hear, hear” really made me grit my teeth as intended.
The production is notable, too, for its costuming. (Joy Sweeney)The dresses, parasols and carriage of the women in his life are period evocation at its finest. Hanging Rock white melds with older women’s colours and there is a lovely use of detail in Vita’s ribbon, a pearl bracelet, a black cameo etc. This is especially true for Pattie’s ring which draws the light against her widow’s weeds and sharply defines the breast-clasped grief.
ALFRED DEAKIN IS AFRAID OF THE DARK throws a light on a politician and family man who influenced the Australia we have today and it is a story artfully told.