In a story of expat escapism and domestic warfare, the State Theatre Company South Australia and Queensland Theatre co-production of Sue Smith’s Hydra offers an imagined personal history of Australian literary luminaries George Johnston and Charmian Clift.
Told from the perspective of their eldest son Martin (Nathan O’Keefe), the story recounts the meeting of former war correspondent George (Bryan Probets) and young journalist Charmian (Anna McGahan), and their subsequent quest for an international literary life.
Fleeing the banality of 1950s Australia in pursuit of artistic integrity and experiential purity, the couple establish themselves on the Greek island of Hydra, depicted in evocative simplicity via Vilma Mattila’s set and Nigel Levings’ lighting. Seduced by the country that originated grand myths and civilisation, they spend their first summer soaked in alcohol, sunlight and European philosophy, elated by their expatriate hyper-reality. In this illusory state they party and they write, convinced that it is only a matter of time before they coax out the great Australian novel.
But of course the dream doesn’t last, even on this entrancing island where phosphorescence trails the limbs on an evening swim and the old gods haunt the landscape. A series of rejection letters brings the very real challenge of financial hardship, while professional envy rears potently with the success of their painter friend Vic (whose character, played by Hugh Parker, is a proxy for Sidney Nolan). When tuberculosis, infidelity, jealousy, competitiveness, alcoholism and boredom enter the mix, things don’t exactly improve.
Conflict and awkward social situations abound – the couple fights openly, and Vic’s wife Ursula (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight) makes no secret of the fact that their friendship isn’t real – and the shifting moods allow space for some absorbing performances from the cast. Some of the most impactful scenes are powered by unspoken reactions, whether to a partner’s cruelty, to yet another professional disappointment, to disease, or to one of Ursula’s ‘truth bombs’. Meanwhile, Charmain’s frustrations at gendered social norms – and George’s obliviousness to them – are particularly resonant.
Tenderness within the family seems tied mainly to beginnings – early love, a new country, the birth of a child, a nascent novel. Outside of that, only traces of affection are glimpsed, and the couple’s children are rarely referenced. Charmain and especially George do come across as self-absorbed and might have deserved a little more exploration of their kind-hearted sides; however, the place from which Martin is telling the story lends some distance from history and adds an intriguing question as to how far the audience should trust the narrator, even while his yearning for his parents, and for a little bit of love from them, is doubtless.
Later in life the couple taste success upon their return to Australia, but it proves no lasting tonic and their destructive patterns resume in another iteration of the play’s Icarus motif, a myth that seems destined to govern the rather sad trajectory of these fiercely insatiable literary talents.
Hydra was performed at the Dunstan Playhouse on Monday, May 6
May 1 – 19