Content warnings: Shadows of Love: A Triptych contains coarse language and themes including domestic violence and murder. Recommended for audiences aged 15+.
The Curators’ Theatre presents a triptych of one-act plays for Fringe Brisbane, featuring stories and song about the dark side of love and marriage, each set against the backdrop of 1950s Australia.
Opening and closing Shadows of Love, as well as providing interludes between the three plays, were a range of songs from the 1950s, charmingly performed by Chelsea Burton as The Chanteuse. Staged in The Curators’ home venue, the heritage-listed Christ Church in Milton, Shadows of Love played facing a raised seating bank, with three sides of the hall blocked by curtains to create a central stage. Above the performance space, bridal and domestic miscellanea hung from the roof, framing the space – dresses and veils, dolls, tea sets, records, and birdcages, among other things.
The first play of the evening was John Romeril’s Mrs Thally F, a 1971 fictionalised retelling of Australia’s first convicted thallium poisoner. Yvonne Fletcher poisoned both of her husbands – first Desmond Butler and then Bertrand ‘Bluey’ Fletcher – with thallium, a flavourless, odourless, colourless poison used for rats which was readily available over the counter in the late 1940s. Initially sentenced to death, Fletcher’s sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment following NSW’s abolition of the death penalty, and she was released from prison in 1964.
In Mrs Thally F, Yvonne was portrayed as a naïve young woman who loved to dance at the Saturday night socials but ended up in two consecutive marriages with men who drank, gambled, and abused her. In retaliation, Yvonne added thallium sulphate to their food. Her first husband was hospitalised with mysterious symptoms, and eventually died. His body was exhumed when Yvonne’s second husband suffered from the same fatal symptoms, and it was discovered that both men had died as a result of thallium poisoning, leading to Yvonne’s conviction and imprisonment.
The Curators’ Theatre’s production of Mrs Thally F used interesting, versatile staging and a hyper-theatrical performance style to tell the story. The play focused on Yvonne’s relationships with her husbands, depicting the lack of help she received from authorities when she was a victim of violence in her own home, but also her relationship with her strong-willed mother (Bronwyn Nayler), whose distrust of men and bitterness about Yvonne’s absent father was evident. Mrs Thally F found a middle ground of examining Yvonne’s dire circumstances, as a woman in the 1950s trapped in an abusive marriage, without justifying her decision to exact revenge through a long and painful murder.
Sherri Smith gave an impressively energetic and passionate performance as Yvonne, contrasted against Nayler’s grounded, angry characterisation of her mother, Vivien Whittle and Julie Berry both performed a variety of roles, and Andrew Hyde and Edward Dorgan provided voiceovers. The piece opened with a dance hall scene, including songs performed by Chelsea Burton and choreography by Stuart Mauchline, and interludes of song and dance continued throughout, performed by the cast. Both of Yvonne’s husbands were represented by a featureless cloth figure, puppeteered by the other actors. Props and set pieces were used in interesting, multifunctional ways and creative sound design added further texture and humour.
Following an interval, Shadows of Love continued with Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, adapted and directed by Helen Strube. On a rural Australian property, Mr Wright has been found strangled in his bed, and his wife has been taken into custody under suspicion of being the perpetrator. After the hyper-theatricality of Mrs Thally F, Trifles was a domestic drama of small moments and observations that led to significant conclusions. The play addressed gendered perceptions and performance, with a particular focus on the shorthand and shared understanding between women.
First performed in 1916 with Glaspell playing the role of Mrs Hale, Trifles is based on the true story of Margaret Hossack, an American woman who murdered her husband while he slept in 1901. Glaspell covered the case as a journalist, writing for the Des Moines Daily News. Trifles is considered a great work of American theatre, written during the first wave feminist movement, and Glaspell is now recognised as a pioneering feminist writer and America’s first significant female playwright.
In the original script, three men search the house for evidence; in Strube’s adaptation, these three characters were conflated into the singular character of George Henderson, a local magistrate who accompanies two women to the house to collect a few things for Mrs Wright while she is in custody. Mrs Hale, a farmer’s wife from a nearby property, and Mrs Peters, the policeman’s wife, assemble in the kitchen of the accused woman while the magistrate searches for further evidence upstairs and outside, dismissive of the women and their domestic tasks. As they begin to pack her belongings and discuss what they knew about the Wrights, Mrs Hale and Mrs Peters make some disturbing discoveries, and began to piece together their own version of events.
Almost all of the action in Trifles took place on the left half of the stage; on the other side, Bronwyn Nayler sat in the role of Minnie Wright, slowly folding and unfolding origami figures or rearranging her clothing. Minnie did not interact with the other characters, beyond an opening scene which was presented as a retelling, but her presence was felt strongly in the work through this staging choice.
Eleonora Gianardi and Caroline Sparrow delivered nuanced performances and brought a sense of stoic solidarity to Mrs Hale and Mrs Peters, respectively. James Kable played the role of the magistrate, George Henderson, but struggled with his lineson the night that we attended, which impacted the overall pacing and rising tension. Costuming in shades of blue and white gave the performance visual cohesion, and detail-oriented set design by Michael Beh and sound design by Erin O’Shea added to the strong sense of place.
Where the unfolding action in Mrs Thally F was fast-paced, Trifles relied heavily on exposition from the magistrate, and dialogue from Mrs Peters and Mrs Hale as they shared their knowledge of local history and their own experiences, especially as women in an isolated rural setting. The metaphor of a caged bird recurred throughout, and Trifles also echoed the sentiments of Mrs Thally F surrounding “good men” who are “hard workers”, as a means of justifying or redeeming people who had committed acts of domestic violence.
Shadows of Love: A Triptych concluded with August Strindberg’s experimental monodrama The Stronger, adapted by Helen Strube and Lisa Hickey and directed by Strube. The Stronger focused on the chance meeting of a wife and a mistress in a social setting, exploring love, loyalty, deception, and self-delusion. The addition of a companion piece by Helen Strube, titled The Stronger – Life Lessons, engaged with and responded to the original text, adding a metatheatrical conclusion.
Lisa Hickey played the role of Isabella, the sole speaker in The Stronger, and her progression through polite enthusiasm to accusation to triumph was highly emotional and dramatic. Caroline Sparrow was equally impressive as Amelia, conveying a great deal of emotion and meaning without saying a word for the full duration of The Stronger, and then assuredly delivering her own monologues in Life Lessons.
Shadows of Love: A Triptych was a varied evening of song, dance, and theatre, drawing together a trio of very different works to examine love, marriage, violence, and fidelity in 1950s Australian society, and how these were impacted by socially imposed gendered roles and expectations.
Shadows of Love: A Triptych will play at Christ Church, Milton, from 15 October – 6 November 2022.