Based on the story of the writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, Jane Howard says that Hydra is most compelling in its intimacy
It’s the 1950s. We’re on Hydra, an island two hours from Athens by boat. Charmian Clift and George Johnston have left post-war Australia to live the bohemian lifestyle of expatriate writers. In the Mediterranean they will raise their children, swim, bask, drink, smoke and talk. And they’ll write their Great Australian Novels.
Sue Smith’s new play takes its inspiration from Johnston and Clift’s writing. Named for the island and drawing from Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing and Clift’s Peel Me A Lotus, Hydra takes the audience into the period of their lives which would result in Johnston’s Miles Franklin Award-winning My Brother Jack: his name on the cover, her work as “midwife”, helping it find its way into the world.
The strengths of Smith’s script come out most strongly when she plays with these original texts. Clift’s poetic prose, in particular, shines on stage when it’s spoken by Anna McGahan:
Sometimes, for a mad moment, when my hand slips on the ladder and the iron rungs suddenly leap above my head and the weeds pour down, or I feel myself being hurled forwards towards those jagged, streaming rocks, the smell rises as though my mouth was stuffed with oozy sponges, and I am filled with something that is terror and desire both… to ride on with the wild horses to the waiting cliff, or to curl up small, close against the scaly rocks, to curl up small and let the wild horses ride over me.
McGahan’s understated Charmian is the star of this production. As the play goes on and Hydra begins to lose its shine, her eyebrows draw further in, her chin drops, her jaw clenches tighter. Nigel Levings’ lighting design often leaves McGahan in half-shadow, and yet it is her where your eye lingers.
In Bryan Probets’ George (a remarkable likeness to the real Johnston), we see a man Charmian could fall in love with – he is married, yes, but he flirts with her as if she were his equal. He might be a celebrated war correspondent, but you can see his attraction to the brilliant young columnist, a woman with whom he can talk about the world, a woman he can write beside.
This relationship, both in Johnston and Clift’s words and in the dialogue Smith expands around them, is drawn with heart and complexity. They love and they lose. They fret and they comfort. Each is as confused as the other, but when they work together: they just work.
In 1960, LIFE Magazine photographer James Burke photographed the collection of expatriate artists who made lives on this small island. His evocative black-and-white imagery shows a collection of friends as family: Charmian leaning on the shoulder of Leonard Cohen as he plays his guitar, watched over by poet Charles W Heckstall; the artists walking through the bustling agora. They carry babies on one arm, holding cigarettes in their other hand.
These photos show lives much larger than Smith is able to capture for the stage. But neither does her script pare these experiences down enough to make them shine in the intimacy of live performance.
Hydra, directed by Sam Strong for the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Queensland Theatre, is either too big or too small. With a cast of six – two doubling to create nine characters – Smith’s script loses both the intimacy of a story about Charmian and George, and the expansiveness of the story of this family of five as they lived on this island in the Aegean Sea alongside the Greek locals and other expatriate artists.
When Charmian rails against her husband for not seeing the work she puts into raising children and keeping the house, while also being a writer, while also caring for a sick husband so he can be a writer, too, we understand its impetus – because we understand what wives in the 1950s, or even today, might face.
But we don’t seen any of this work, just the strange shadowy edges of it. Nathan O’Keefe, as their son, the poet Martin Johnston, acts as narrator, leaning against the wall of Vilma Mattila’s set. It is in these moments I felt most acutely that Smith hadn’t found the ideal shape for this play: Martin’s character is at once too much and not enough. He needs to disappear, to let this story truly exist in the hands of Charmian and George, or he needs to become part of the mess of the life that Charmian describes.
In Hydra, Martin feels like a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. As Charmian and George’s eldest child, O’Keefe occasionally inhabits the body of their son at eight-years-old (he is the only visible child: their youngest is seen only as a swaddled baby; the middle sister is mentioned only in passing). Mostly he sits and observes the action, narrating us through shifts in time and space. It’s an inelegant solution to these changes, which could’ve been marked through directorial choices. It is only at the end, when Martin tells us what happened to his family as it fell apart through death and tragedy after their return to Australia, when this character seems to have a point, tying up the loose ends. And even this could have had another solution.
The narration detracts for another reason: it pulls focus from McGahan’s extraordinary performance. Her Charmian and Proberts’ George are the focus of this story, and when Strong and Smith turn their attention to their relationship and writings, Hydra thrums. So much of the play’s strength comes in its silences. Or what would be silence, if Martin wasn’t narrating over the top of it.
Mattila’s set design is unmistakably the bright whites of a Greek island, but also suggestive: under the curve of a wall, locations shift by the types of tables placed on the stage, the presence or absence of garlic hanging from a wall to dry; an ocean is created by blue lights dappled on the stage, as McGahan dips her toes before slipping her body under.
There are small touches of realism which, like the reticence of McGahan’s and Proberts’ performances, are quiet but powerfully resonant. As George and Charmian sit at their typewriters to work – every morning, from 7am – the clicker-clack of the keys plays out over the theatre; if you look closely you see lines of text appearing as the type hammers hit ink onto the pages: a story appearing from nothing, in its own strange small form of alchemy.
Hydra is always most compelling in its intimacy – in its portrayals of love and hatred, in how this intimacy explodes and implodes It’s in the details of these writers trying to remember the name of the pub on the corner of Spring and Bourke Streets in a Melbourne thousands of miles and a decade away. As they work separately and together, Smith shows us the compelling story of this literary couple. But this story is muted by the narration and supporting cast.
In Peel me a Lotus, Clift writes about living under the sun on Hydra: “All is open, all revealed. Here are no deceptions, but the bare truth of things.”
It seems to me that we have become simplified too, living here, as though the sun has seared off the woolly fuzz of our separate confusions: the half-desires irresolutely sought, the half-fears never more than half vanquished, the partial attainments half rejected in perplexed dissatisfaction. Shedding so much, we are stripped to our bare selves, lighter, freer, and impoverished of nothing but a few ridiculous little self-importances.
If only Smith could’ve stripped the play’s woolly fuzz back a bit more, to find these bare selves.
Hydra, by Sue Smith, directed by Sam Strong. Designed by Vilma Mattila, lighting design by Nigel Levings. Performed by Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Anna McGahan, Nathan O’Keefe, Hugh Parker, Bryan Probets and Kevin Spink. State Theatre Company of South Australia and Queensland Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre. Until May 19. Bookings
Audio described performances 2pm May 11, 6.30pm May 14