“All theatre needs is a couple of great actors and a script that has something to say.” Robert Reid sees My Sister Feather at La Mama and discovers a masterfully crafted production
Tilly blows a feather in the air, keeping it up there with nothing but her breath. Egg sits watching, the feather tickling her face.
The landscape is stripped of everything but these sisters. No mother, no past, no reason to remain in each other’s lives. We find them at a moment which could be their last, and which tells us little more about them than they are sisters. Writer/director Olivia Satchell asks what happens here, in this space. Cleared of everything but this relationship, why shouldn’t this moment be their last together?
The Courthouse is in traverse, with a bare table and benches bolted to the floor and a vending machine that apparently broke down only hours before opening (hooray for mechanics!) I’m aware of the audience on the other side, as they must be aware of us. We fade into the shadows as the show begins, but occasionally, if my attention falters in a silent moment, the audience beyond flickers into existence.
When Egg enters she hovers in the doorway, perhaps wary of the space. She’s standing underneath a security camera, just outside its range of vision. This is a very observed space: not so much judgemental or gladiatorial as clinical. The camera and an alarm appears to be an automated system in which things that are out of place or considered bad behaviour are punished with a loud, annoying alarm, part of Tom Backhaus’ sound design, that fills the room until the transgression is amended.
The sisters react to the noise and the camera as if they are part of the same system. They assume a human consciousness is behind it, giving it the finger and testing its boundaries, but only once does it make what appears to be a deliberate decision not to punish an infraction. Which could hint at a machine following a rule set we don’t fully comprehend.
Tilly (Belinda McClory) and Egg (Emily Tomlins) are placed in this surveilled space, two sisters long since estranged, with abandonment issues and long held resentments. We’re shown the effects but are never told much of the story. We discover them as Tilly is visiting the incarcerated Egg. The text flashes back through their shared past, but never forward. We see them play as girls. We see them plan to survive alone when their mother has abandoned them. We see them fight and hurt each other. Through their rituals of sisterhood, their banter, status play, emotional manipulation and physical bullying, Tilly and Egg present a distillation of a kind of kinship: a deep care born of life long association, reunited after a long separation.
In one of the flashbacks Tilly and Egg sit at the table, which in this moment for me was a suburban park at night – maybe the Jason’s Crick’s lighting went a particular shade of yellow at this moment, or maybe I’m misremembering. They don’t speak. The older sister simply blows a feather in the air and lets it fall into the younger sister’s face. Tilly is keeping Egg going with stories and lies about the future and the past. Everything is okay because its suspended in the present.
Egg and Tilly live and breathe through Tomlins and McClory. The shifts of feeling, the undercurrent of subtext, the deep hurts and betrayals, the hopes and disappointments and care, can be read on their faces and in their bodies.
Australia has a fine tradition of prison plays such as The Chocolate Frog, Every Night Every Night and The Hour Before My Brother Dies. My Sister Feather is a worthy addition to that particularly Australian canon and, more than that, it uses incarceration to explore how we care for each other, where much of our other prison drama is rooted in dehumanisation and survival.
Putting coins into the slot of a vending machine, eating a hard lolly, picking up cans and putting them in the bin: every movement and gesture takes the time it takes. In these silent settlings of the relationship we have time to think back over the scraps of information we have gleaned, the signals that meetings this charged inevitably give off, even in public.
Satchell’s text masterfully crafts these characters in this moment. Very little in this play is extraneous to this fragment of these women’s lives, but they are such complete portraits that we feel like we know their whole story, even though we really don’t. It’s not a prison play, despite its setting; it uses the prison yard as a crucible to distil this relationship between these sisters. Its purest distillation is the feather in the air.
Satchell and her team admirably demonstrate that good theatre doesn’t need big casts and bigger sets. All it needs is a couple of great actors and a script that has something to say.
My Sister Feather, written and directed by Olivia Satchell. Dramaturgy by Emma Valente, sound design by Tom Backhaus, lighting design Jason Crick, set and costumes by James Lew. Performed by Emily Tomlins and Belinda McClory, La Mama Theatre until June 10. Bookings
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