Queensland Theatre’s first world premiere of 2019 was Hydra charting the flight and fall of Australian literati couple George Johnston and Charmian Clift as they tried to carve out a bohemian lifestyle for themselves in the 1950s on the remote Greek island of the same name. There, they come face-to-face with the many-headed beast of the island’s name in the form of poverty, alcoholism, ill health, and jealousy both personal and artistic. A co-production with State Theatre Company of South Australia, Hydra draws directly from Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing and Clift’s Peel Me a Lotus.
The audience was introduced to Johnston and Clift in Sydney, where they meet and marry, before moving to London and eventually settling on Hydra for almost a decade. Despite their intentions to live as free spirits, away from the centre of the literary world and their home country, it was here that Johnston’s My Brother Jack, winner of the 1964 Miles Franklin Award and considered a contender for the great Australian novel, was conceived and created. Clift and Johnston’s characters in the work talk about the charting of the national myth, unpacking the Australian identity in the wake of two World Wars.
Clift and Johnston were soon joined on Hydra by a plethora of other artists seeking idyllic life and inspiration, including artist Vic (Hugh Parker) and his writer wife Ursula (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight), and other wannabe artists like Jean-Claude (played by Ray Chong Lee). There was a fantastic tension between the four main cast members, the two creative couples, but this work would have had significantly less impact without the exceptional performances delivered by Anna McGahan and Bryan Probets. They were a gripping onstage pairing, he in his boldness and drunkenness and crassness, she in her grounded composure and quiet strength, her inward-turned fear and fury. Clift is very much positioned as a cliff, steadfast and reliable by comparison, as the wild waves of Johnston’s moods, his rage and jealousy, his despair and doubt, his condescension and existentialism, crash against her, until eventually she too is worn away.
Directed in this world premiere season by Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sam Strong, Smith’s script interweaves the poetry of their words, particularly Clift’s lyrical descriptions of their life on the island, with the action and drama of the story. Composition and sound design by Quentin Grant and lighting design by Nigel Levings complemented the postcard-perfect image of the whitewashed Greek island created by designer Vilma Mattila. A particularly memorable scene, beautifully lit, was Charmian swimming in the ocean, McGahan stretched out on the floor of the stage with her limbs swirling slowly around her, dreamily reciting from Clift’s poetic memoir.
The thing I found perhaps most interesting about Sue Smith’s script was the decision to have the work narrated by Clift and Johnston’s son, Martin, played by Nathan O’Keefe. He sits or stands in almost every scene, most often silent, but bearing witness to the destruction of his parents’ marriage, their dream, their sense of self. “I saw it. I was there,” he repeats throughout the work. His presence, as an observer and the narrator at the heart of the story, brings to light a different side of Clift and Johnston, the famous literati couple – parents, whose drinking and depression and ‘monstrous work ethic’ made them less than attentive, and these vices they passed on to their children, to bear and die from in their own turn.
Continuous comparisons were made, both in the narration and in the play’s dialogue, to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, of flying too close to the sun. It was briefly touched upon that perhaps the island of Hydra, where one of the monster’s heads supposedly still lies, had cursed or poisoned them, but this mythological tie-in fell a bit flat, introduced very late in the piece and against the clear evidence that Johnston and Clift had set their relationship and their creative oasis aflame without any divine intervention needed.
Although George Johnston is the award-winner, the household name, this play is Charmian Clift’s moment in the sun. It highlights her role as both muse and critic, her unthanked role as mother and caretaker and, as the play puts it, as midwife of her husband’s great work. Hydra asks the question – without Johnston, would it have been Clift to write the great Australian novel? Could her unfinished novel, The End of the Morning, have been equally as great, as successful, as resonant with Australian audiences if Clift had not set it aside to support her husband unequivocally in his own pursuit of transcendental art? The work does not seek to answer the question, but serves to highlight Clift’s significance in creating My Brother Jack – and in all of Johnston’s work up until that point – and the professional sacrifices she made in order to play this role.
Hydra is an intriguing revisiting (or, for some of us, introduction) to two major players of Australian literature in the 21st century, presenting them as flawed and human, and made riveting by outstanding performances from the cast.
Hydra played at the Bille Brown Theatre from 9 March – 6 April and will play at the Adelaide Festival Centre from 1 – 19 May, 2019.