Monday, September 5, 2016

Letters to Lindy

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
A Merrigong Theatre Company production in association with Canberra Theatre Centre presents LETTERS TO LINDY, a Play by Alana Valentine, in the York Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 2 - 10 September.

LETTERS TO LINDY is a new Australian play by Alana Valentine. Earlier this year we saw another of her plays, LADIES DAY presented by the Griffin Theatre Company. This new work suggests that the three most controversial Australian issues in the last century, that provoked discussion, virulent argument, across all stratas of our community were: Conscription, Whitlam and Lindy Chamberlain. Ms Valentine sets out to remind us of the Lindy story.

In August, 1980 Lindy Chamberlain cried out in a camp around Uluru (Ayres Rock) that a dingo had taken her baby, Azaria. Later, she was accused of murdering her nine month old baby-child, by cutting her throat with nail scissors, and after much lawful calamity was sentenced to prison. We are told, in this play, of appeals to the courts of the nation,and the failures of those appeals. Of evidence accidentally found in the wilderness, so that, ultimately, Ms Chamberlain was released and had her innocence vindicated. Legally the affair was not cleared completely until 2012. This saga began some 36 years ago. Some, in this audience, were hearing this story for the first time - they hadn't even been born, it was, probably for them a kind of myth, legend! But many knew of it and sat quietly through it again - for we had all aged with that 'heritage'.

What this play does is reveal the collateral damage to Ms Chamberlain in the tumult of public opinion and trials and imprisonment throughout those years. From 199 boxes stored at the National Library of Australia, Ms Valentine has researched and collated a series of letters written by the general public over those 36 years that were sent to Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and extrapolated with interview and other research further, to create a picture of the experience. We hear and learn of a whole range of opinion, attack and, on the other hand, too, support from the Australian community towards Lindy. It is a sometimes a distressing revelation of the human banality conjured by a mother's loss that became a nation's obsession.

Actor, Jeanette Cronin gives us a portrait of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton over those 36 years. It is an amazingly dexterous performance, assisted with costume and wig design, that reveals a multi-dimensional, empathic individual that steadfastly held to her beliefs and survived a torrent of speculation, humiliation and a travesty of the justice system, over and over again.

Support comes from Philip Hinton, Jane Phegan, and especially, an inventive Glen Hazeldine, in creating the anonymous letter writers. The work is modest in their attentive contribution. The shape of the play is straight forward and follows a tried and true structure of this kind of verbatim theatre - so that, we know where we are and what to expect. The focus is on the revelations and the character of Lindy. The Director, Darren Yap, in a no-frills/thrills manner simply moves the actors around a very old-fashioned naturalistic Design of a living space in an ordinary suburban home (Design by James Browne.) The Lighting by Toby Knyvett is naturalistic, the Musical score by Max Lambert and Roger Lock, quietly supportive (occasionally corny - especially the songs).

What does occur through the two acts of the play is a gradual accumulation of respect and a gentle human awe towards this woman and her terrible plight. It has one questioning the trivialities of the human species in its pack mentality to bring 'the other' down, to heel. And, as well, the simplistic but human need to express support for a 'sufferer'. The play examples where reason can be lost with the presence of fear in an attempt to explain the different, the unexpected shift from the normal, of a woman, in these events, who did not respond to the death of her child in the conventional manner. I thought of the history of Salem of 1692, of the pogroms of the Jews over history. I thought of the fear some in our community have today concerning the possibility of hate hysteria arising over the plebiscite our government is planning to have over the Same Sex marriage question in the coming year. Discriminate invective stirred by ignorance, stoked by fear.

You know, I was even provoked to think of an historic figure like Saint Joan d'Arc and her faith in her voices and her vengeful imprisonment and death. It made me consider the dignity, courage and human status of an ordinary individual like Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton. That here in time to come may be an Australian woman who will accrue a kind of importance in our National Memory. Ms Valentine in a very modest, but prepared construct of playwriting has recalled a figure that we ought to give some pause to, as an example of heroism in the face of outrageous fortune.

 Indeed, Ms Valentine in her quite modest way has, over the history of her writing, told stories of, mostly, women struggling in the hegemony of an unbalanced 'rule' book belonging to the 'haves' of our society, to give dignity to themselves and their communities. A catalogue of work of some honour that is consistent and cumulatively powerful.

On the night I watched this play, at its ending, many people, mostly women, stood to applaud - they gave a standing ovation. I am sure it was as much to applaud the performance of the artists involved as it was to regard/recognise the life trials of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton.
We will declare that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything - Anton Chekhov.

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