Richard Beynon’s The Shifting Heart is the play actor Tony Poli wished he’d written about his own family.
“Except I’m too undisciplined to ever write a play,” he smiles.
“When you look at the theatrical canon in Australia, there isn’t much about the migrants of the 1950s. So my family never had that voice, never had a chance to tell their story.”
Poli is playing an Italian migrant of his father’s generation in a new production of The Shifting Heart, playing at the Seymour Centre. “It’s the story of a family trying to find their place in a new world,” he says. “And in that new world, there are friendly faces and unfriendly faces.”
The same kinds of faces Poli’s father would have encountered when he arrived in Melbourne from Italy in 1951.
“He was a kid, just 19, and they threw him straight into the migrant camp at Bonegilla [just outside Wodonga],” says Poli. “He came here under an assisted migration scheme, but the rule was that you were held in the camp until you found work. The food was terrible and they weren’t allowed go out to enjoy themselves. I interviewed him once and he told me there were young men who hanged themselves at Bonegilla.”
Poli’s cast mate Dina Panozzo says her family came to Australia in 1955. There was nothing for them back in an economically ruined post-war Italy, she says.
“My papa fought with the Partisani against the Germans. He was only 16 then but after the war, there was no future. Everyone was leaving, so my mum and dad went to Melbourne on a boat in 1955.”
In many ways, say Poli and Panozzo, Beynon’s fictional Bianchi family struggling to assimilate in mid-50s Australia is a picture of their own.
“We went to Melbourne because we had family there,” Panozzo explains. “An uncle let us sleep in the kitchen on a mattress. I was only three months old and my brother was 18 months old.”
In those days, the Italian community tended to keep to itself, Panozzo adds. “We set up our own clubs, and met at the church on Sunday, and would stick to our people because whenever we tried to go out of that it was very hard. I was born in Italy, but being a light skinned northern Italian I got away with being Australian, as long as I chucked away that salami sandwich at lunchtime.”
Poli says Italian was his first language for his childhood years. “I couldn’t speak any English until I went to school. We lived in an Australian street full of Anglo Saxons, but we didn’t associate with them.”
“I actually failed kindergarten because I couldn’t speak English,” Panozzo laughs. “We didn’t mix much either. On my street, I quite liked girls called Noeline and Ruth but my mother thought they were very ‘loose’. And next door, there was a family of Calabresi from the south of Italy. We probably liked them less than the Aussies!”
Beynon was Melbourne-born and educated before he went to England in 1947 to became an actor, and then a successful screenwriter and script editor in the British television industry. He wrote The Shifting Heart in 1956, a play harking back to the inner city he was raised in.
Described by the critic Kenneth Tynan as “a pungent piece of Australiana” when it came third in one of Britain’s leading dramatic competitions, Beynon’s play was one of the first to try to describe the experiences of post-war European migrants in Australia and the difficulties they faced in a frequently hostile host culture.
“The Bianchis are trying to assimilate into the new world, their daughter is married to an Australian boy and their son wants to set up his own business,” Poli says. “But when you make that kind of step forward things happen – good things and bad.”
Kim Hardwick, the director of White Box Theatre’s production of The Shifting Heart says she wouldn’t have attempted to produce the play without Poli on board. “I don’t see the value in telling the story unless you can have that kind of lived experience on stage. Plus I’ve worked with Tony a few times now and I knew he would tell this story beautifully.”
“And I said I wouldn’t do the play without Dina,” Poli adds.
Panozzo admits she had some reservations at first.
“I read the play and I got scared that it was a cliché,” she says. “Then Tony told me to look at it again and think about our parents and families and our own stories. After that, I just knew if we treated the story as truth, as a snapshot of those times, it would absolutely resonate. Now, doing this play, I look back at my mother and how people would laugh at the way she spoke sometimes, and the way she would play up to it. I think about the shame she must have felt. It breaks my heart.”
Hardwick says she hopes the audience will see the play and think about how we treat migrants today. “Now we have new migrants coming from Sudan, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan,” she says. “So it’s a way for us to ask has this story really changed? Or do we just have new faces?”
“These new immigrants, I can’t believe they are being treated even worse,” says Panozzo. “They can’t even come into Australia, we keep them suffering in camps. It’s a never ending cycle of fear and racism. We have to let them come, we have to care for people.”
Poli agrees. “We can move on from all this when we start looking at our similarities and our shared experiences rather than pointing out our differences. But people are scared to do that. We are scared to ask, are we the same?”
The Shifting Heart plays in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, March 8-24