A few months after I was married I happened to be on tour for Queensland Theatre Company in one of their far-ranging theatre in education teams. This is the mid-1970s, by the way. Out little three-person troupe was playing far northern and central Australia in a play about a white boy who had run away into the bush. I remember he faced his demons and a very large (puppet head) crocodile (pre-Dundee days) during his adventures and, by play’s end, returned back home ready presumably to face whatever life threw at him. I remember the kids in the mission stations around Cape York screaming in delighted terror when I would emerge as the crocodile.
So it was at QTC’s latest offering Alana Valentine‘s truly wonder-filled play A Headful of Love directed by Wesley Enoch that I found myself witnessing another Australian play that follows a now-familiar track – the going ‘away’ from the known into the unknown (city to desert heart) to escape something. Typically, protagonists are either destroyed or resurrected in some way. It’s a theme that post-colonial Australia’s still obsessively examining in its navel-gazing, self-identification quest. I remember our primary school social studies courses being jam-packed with stories of doomed and dying explorers who had ventured into the centre of the vast continent without a clue. They were presented to us as heroes, and it was the kind of mad, boys’ own adventure, the sort that had infatuated imperial Britain.
Australian drama across the years has been quite keen on this trope which is, of course, drawn from a far earlier literary theme that examined the differences between city and country and ‘civilised’ v ‘uncivilised’ behaviour. Women and children in the landscape find their way into Australian art and literature in the 19th century. In dramatic terms it’s a set up that just works; the juxtaposition of fragile things against a rugged, harsh, and unforgiving landscape – the ‘feminine’ and ‘domestic’ entering the ‘masculine’ world of colonial pioneering. Putting an outsider into unfamiliar territory can make for tragic or comic material. In the case of Ms Valentine’s play – a little of both.
Tilly Napuljari (a western desert woman) and Nessa Tavistock (a Sydney woman) meet in the town camp just outside Alice Springs. Nessa (Colette Mann) arrives with little money and nowhere to stay. Her son has evicted her from her home and she spent most of what money she has left on a ticket on the next flight leaving for anywhere. It turns out to be Alice Springs. Tessa is also on the run from her own demons. One particularly nasty one (that of her son) seems to sit on her shoulder and continues to erode what’s left of her fragile self-confidence. She’s out of sorts, out of her comfort zone, and needy.
Tilly (Roxanne McDonald) sits on the red ground, and endures like the land around, crocheting a beanie for the upcoming Beanie Festival in the city. Time is running out for her; she needs regular dialysis treatment for kidney disease. No spoilers on how their story ends, but it’s clear that the spirit of the piece is all about Tilly and Nessa’s finding strength through mutual acceptance of the other. Friendship and an emotional healing develop from the time they spend together in women’s business: crocheting, singing, sharing life stories and a simple cup of tea.
A Headful of Love is an engagingly-spun yarn, one full of heart and soul. I don’t mind admitting I teared up on more than one occasion especially during Tilly’s evocation of country – beautifully realised by Ms McDonald with Simone Romaniuk‘s evocative design, Brett Collery‘s composition, and Ben Hughes‘ lighting. It’s never sentimental; the love is tough, but strong.
Both Ms McDonald and Ms Mann, two really terrific actors, play wonderfully together. They’ve been working on A Headful of Love since its premiere as a commission in 2010 at the Darwin Festival. You sense a genuine affection for each other and a love of the material they are presenting; you can’t fake this stuff. They’re working to raise funds for a couple of portable renal, dialysis machines to assist the treatment of desert people in country. Having to make the trek to the city is exhausting and debilitating for patients already suffering from this cruel disease which is affecting so many indigenous Australians. Colette will persuade you in the nicest possible way to donate in the curtain speech, so go prepared!
There is a magnificent beanie with yellow bobbles that Tilly tells us represents the story of the honey ants. On that same tour back in 1975, some territory women on the station where we were staying learned I had just been married. They decided to take me on a walk into the bush and show me how to dig for the honey ant, a particularly sweet little treat that ‘my man would love.’ We found some, and I sampled them and, you know, I think he would have loved them too. They were delicious! By the way, the beanies that appear on stage are the real thing, works of art donated by people who entered them in the Festival. Fabulous!
A Headful of Love plays at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre until. Check the website for showtime details.