Each year in December, western capitalist civilisation – in its families, neighbourhoods, shopping centres and communities – stages a grand production.
A great deal of collective effort, anxiety and money is involved, as the world is garlanded with garish cheer and tinselled splendour, and the coercive contagion of merriment spreads. Everyone is obliged to play the same role: that of blithe and convivial celebrant. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Andy Williams sings.
Of course, this Christmas social contract can create a lot of cognitive dissonance when circumstances aren’t so conducive to cheer.
Blue Christmas, a double bill by two Australian playwrights, plays out this silly season dissonance across two contexts underwritten by trauma.
The inaugural work of the IGNITE collective, an all-female initiative of New Ghosts Theatre Company, it’s a wholly engaging two hours driven by warm-hearted scripts and sterling performances. Blessedly, neither play overstays its welcome.
First up is Katy Warner’s Good People.
Six young women are stranded in the airport of a place far from home. Christmas jingles play on repeat, interrupted only by a harsh and unintelligible intercom, which may or may not be their boarding call.
Courtesy of their film star friend (Chika Ikogwe), the women been enjoying the exotic paradise of a third world country – up until the point when tragedy struck.
Whether it was a terrorist attack, a coup or something else, they don’t know– but outside their weird, cosmopolitan interzone, there’s blood, rubble and a land in ruins. Their holiday is over, their bubble is popped. What was careless, carefree voyeurism caves in.
Warner’s story is a penetrating and often very funny examination of the secondary trauma of privilege as it witnesses the lived trauma of the non-privileged. The women identify as ‘good people’, but how does that hold up if they don’t stay to help? Why do they get to be safe? But wouldn’t they just get in the way if they remain? What should they do, what can they do, and how can they live like before?
These questions are played out through the prisms of very different personalities. Remi (Emma Wright) insists on ethical grounds that they can’t leave. Rosie (Jane Watt) relocates their responsibility to the level of throwaway cups, and says something inexcusable about self-care. The friendship is tested, as is the relationship between Cara (Sasha Dyer) and Jess (Chika Ikogwe).
The play ends in a highly satisfying uncertainty.
A tipple at the downstairs KXT bar (in which work Christmas parties are in full, ruddy-cheeked swing) and we’re back for Shandy’s Corner by Gretel Vella.
Another piece perfectly composed in a single act, the setting this time is a Sydney women’s shelter, at the setting of the table on Christmas day.
The refuge is run by the delightful Shandy (Zoe Jensen), a good-hearted lady who is prone to the most endearingly spectacular of gaffes.
Today, she welcomes a new resident Edith (Clementine Anderson). Outwardly brittle, Edith doesn’t take too warmly to the rest of the women – not amateur DJ Lizzie (Meg Clarke), or naive bimbo Sarah-Jane (Laura Djanegara), or even Shandy herself. She only finds connection with Amara (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash), who doesn’t speak.
Baubles are stolen, food and stories are shared, and things that seem impossible to take on alone are confronted.
Harriet Gordon-Anderson (who will play Hamlet next year for Bell Shakespeare) gives a brilliantly understated and affecting performance as Camille – a woman who has been at the shelter the longest, and suffered unimaginable loss. Aided by Kate Baldwin’s lighting, Ruru Zhu’s set is inviting. Clare Hennessy’s sound design (again) never lets us down.
Lucy Clements’ direction of these two, one-act plays is faultless. The same can be said of the cast. Thoughtful rather than cynical, with warmth suffused into each, these stories substitute the typical schmaltz of Christmas and replace it with true heart.
A lovely gift.
This content is created with the support of City of Sydney