‘Everything ties up beautifully, except it doesn’t quite’: New Review critic Sumudu Samarawickrama on Jane Bodie’s Lamb (A New Play with Songs)
The Red Stitch theatre sits behind a bluestone church in St Kilda and, coming in from the rain as we did on the opening night, it felt like a warm beacon. The intimacy continued as the playwright, Jane Bodie, introduced the work, a Red Stitch commission through its INK writing program. Lamb (A new Play with Songs) is a thoughtful work that displays the care and the attention of the makers, but ultimately it leaves little of itself behind.
Lamb is an intimate portrait of how family legacies and expectations keep people bound to things they do not want. The play is set in two times: just after Whitlam’s sacking in 1975, and 40 or so years later. Jane Bodie plays with time itself within that structure – the first act consists of four scenes moving backwards in time, which depict the reunion of three siblings – Annie, Patrick and Kathleen – for their mother Mary’s funeral, while the second reaches further back to the story of their parents.
The space is small, and the set intensifies this closeness – the audience seems to share the stage. Greg Clarke’s design evokes the dusty interior spaces of the people who live on this sunburned country, cleverly moving through time and memory. The pub set is a double of the family kitchen, and both spaces are moored in a further past, evoking the mid 20th century although the play only goes back as far as the mid-70’s.
Patrick (Simon Maiden, who also doubles for Frank the father in the second act) addresses what we assume is a crowd at the wake, singing a song for his mother. Annie (Brigid Gallacher who doubles as Mary), surprised by his beautiful voice, joins him in singing from the side of the stage. But Patrick is performing to an empty room, a motif that repeats and gains symbolic weight as the play develops.
He caught off guard by Annie, who is kept in the town by a cancelled train. Annie had left the farm many years ago for a music career in the city. As Patrick sees it, she has betrayed the family, and him in particular. Undercurrents swirl in this scene and many points of narrative tension are introduced.
The structural lines of the play also become evident, suggesting a thematic richness. Bodie establishes a dichotomy between the city and the country, the subtextual importance of the songs, sibling rivalry, the harshness of the land and the ghostlike prominence of Mary, the fallen matriarch, in the story of her three children. The scene ends with Annie and Patrick leaving from opposite sides of the stage, utterly divided.
The songs, all by Mark Seymour (of Hunters and Collectors fame) are performed by the cast with real feeling, and give the play a dreamlike quality. In this harsh and practical setting, the songs interweave the narrative to give the characters the ability to communicate their internal vulnerabilities. Seymour’s lyrics speak to the love and tenderness this family has for the land and farming, giving voice to why they stay in a place that materially rejects their presence at every turn.
However, the first act’s subversion of time robs the act of its momentum. Each scene dissipates the energy from the one before it, until it feels like we are grasping for something that doesn’t exist. Perhaps this is Bodie’s commentary on the relentless grind of farming life, but it need more dramatic urgency.
The second scene introduces Kat (Emily Goddard) – or Kathleen as she wants to called now – cooking late at night in the family kitchen. Annie joins her, and we see the estrangement between the two sisters and also the feeling between the two. At first Kathleen’s compulsive need to make lamb cutlets for her mother’s wake seem in keeping with someone suffering grief, but we slowly realise that Kathleen has special needs, though they are never explicitly named. As the play progresses, we discover the truth about their mother’s death, which is far from the peaceful story that Patrick tells Annie.
In the second act we meet the parents, Mary and Frank, on the night that she unhappily tells him she is pregnant. Mary is deeply ambivalent about the life she can see stretching out before her. He’s a earthy country man, romantic and artistic (they are his songs and talents which his kids have inherited), while she is political, independent and ambitious. He wants to marry her, but she doesn’t want to marry him; he loves the land, she can’t wait to leave.
This scene illustrates the genesis of the mundane tragedy of the first act. An unwanted pregnancy which may not even be Frank’s, a moment of suggested violence occurring off stage, a passionate and obstinate man who refuses to see the woman he proclaims to love. People becoming trapped inside cages they either walk into, or enthusiastically build for themselves. Maiden and Gallacher perform Frank and Mary with a vibrancy that has been ground out of Patrick and Annie, damaged as they are by the failure of this marriage.
In Lamb, Mary exists only as a narrative engine: her predicament is not the focus of the work. The tired trope of a woman trapped in a life she doesn’t want due to her biology needs to be interrogated with purpose, and here it doesn’t happen. The suggestion that the baby is not Frank’s does precisely nothing narratively.
The second act also sees the character of Kathleen act in ways that are narratively convenient. Armed with her mother’s secrets (that Kathleen was not wanted, that Mary insisted on Annie’s departure so she could live vicariously through her daughter) Kathleen becomes emboldened. Goddard lifts her performance with comedy and the laughs follow quickly, perhaps as a release from the dour tension of the preceding hour.
But Kathleen becomes merely a mechanism to improve her siblings’ lives. She speaks their truth and she absolves them of her care. Bodie gives the character agency – she doesn’t need to be managed, she is able and willing to do for herself – but the turnaround comes too quickly, and the Kathleen of the kitchen only a day before seems like a complete different character.
That Frank and Mary’s unhappiness forced their children into lives they didn’t want is evident from the first. But this doesn’t seem like their greatest tragedy: there are hints towards a vast history that can be read as abusive. I find Bodie’s instinct towards generating moments of melodrama, only to blunt them, strange; it gives the whole play a stop-start momentum that unsettles without leading anywhere.
Bodie and director Julian Meyrick are clearly layering the characters on top of each other – Annie is pushed to leave by a woman who could not leave, and Patrick is made to stay by a man who only ever wanted to stay. The rest of the play concerns itself with the siblings sorting themselves according to their own impulses. Annie wants to farm, Patrick wants to travel. Kathleen wants to live free from the limitations set upon her by her bitter mother.
Everything ties up beautifully, except it doesn’t quite. To come this far and discover that Lamb’s overarching concern is to tell about people finding freedom by “just doing what they want” feels like a big let down.
The play leaves a strange aftertaste, a conviction that the deeper conflicts, the harder story, haven’t been told. As climate change leaves regions in Australia suffering unprecedented drought, people in the country are taking their own lives at twice the rate of people in the city. Patrick tells Annie that Frank died from a heart attack, but we also see him lie to her about how their mother died. What does the play achieve by keeping these possibilities nebulous? When we consider that research shows that rigid masculine ideals and the pressure to preserve family legacies combine with depression in men to cause greater rates of suicide, the decision not to explore those human, familial ramifications feels like a missed opportunity.
Australia is already suffering the catastrophic effects of climate change, and our rural and farming communities will bear the brunt of it. If we are to continue to make new pastoral theatre, should it not engage with the realities facing farmers today? I can understand the argument that Bodie is precisely showing us how to combat this state of affairs by having her characters refuse to follow in the toxic paths of their parents. But when Lamb solves the complex and painful issues facing the family (and by proxy the farming community), the play flattens out.
In the epilogue we meet Mary and Frank before this history, talking outside a pub in the warm and glittering starlight. He asks her to sing a song with him; she says she’s leaving for a trip to the city, but she might when she comes back. He is watching her, wanting her despite all the things she tells him about her boundless dreams. She watches him, intrigued, seeing how he might be the last choice she will ever make.
So in the beginning is the end, and the end is our beginning. It’s a beautiful scene, acted tenderly and fully supported by the entire production (especially the sound design by Justin Gardam, which manages to evoke an airless, country night on a rainy Melbourne one). In this moment, the whole play gels and seems to spark, full of potential. And then the house lights come up.
The New Review program is a collaboration between Witness and Footscray Community Arts Centre West Writers that nurtures and mentors new critical voices. It is part of Malthouse Theatre’s Living Now resident writers program, funded through the MPA Collaborations program, and has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Lamb (A New Play With Songs), by Jane Bodie, directed by Julian Meyrick, songs by Mark Seymour, sets and costumes by Greg Clarke, lighting by Efterpi Soropos, sound design by Justin Gardam. Performed by Brigid Gallacher, Emily Goddard and Simon Maiden. Red Stitch until December 16. Bookings
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