When ABC foreign correspondent Sally Sara returned from Afghanistan, something broke.
For years she had been reporting – often as a solo video-journalist – from some of the most dangerous war zones in the world. She was a witness and conduit to horror, filing stories of war, disease, rape and torture. Her professional role was her armour. But at home, it fell away. Suddenly, she was left defenceless to the things she had seen, left to confront the part she had played.
Written over five-and-a-half years and directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, Stop Girl is her story, a bruising, tender and searching study of vulnerability, trauma and a dispassionate modern media.
Sheridan Harbridge plays Suzie, a fictionalised version of Sara. Our first encounter with her is in Afghanistan, where she excels as a hard-as-nails correspondent, cavalier in the face of death, efficient in the field and condescending of weakness. When a suicide bomb explodes nearby (making half the audience jump an inch from their seats) she doesn’t flinch.
Reading of her peers talking openly about mental health struggles, she scoffs. The responsibilities of family tug at her, but she ignores them. War is easier to deal with than her father’s ashes.
A fissure splits the fabric of the play, and we’re jolted from a Middle Eastern war zone to the relative absurdities of ordinary Australian life.
Not long ago she was surrounded by the bodies of children beneath rubble. Now she is surrounded by ugly cushions and bad wine. The pomp of media industry nights seems unreal.
The recursive nature of the traumatic past is given elegant representation in a multimedia stage set, one collaborating Robert Cousin’s spare set design, Paul Jackson’s lighting (the floor a luminous square), and video content by Jack Saltmiras and Susie Henderson.
Suzie’s Afghani producer, Atal (Mansoor Noor) is also in Australia. Now in board shorts and toting a boogie board, he relocated on a temporary visa following threats to his life. He’s decided to stay but Suzie thinks only of return. Horror has become her comfort zone. Now she’s home, she’s like a lost child. Restless. Terrified.
Even as the paralytic rictus of years of delayed trauma overwhelms her, she tries to hide it. Not only is she ashamed, she is certain that her career and reputation will be irreparably marred if anyone finds out she is losing it. We are reminded that, as an older woman in a male-dominated space, even her credentials might not save her from irrelevance.
Her stalwart friend Rebecca (Amber McMahon) senses something is going on. So does Suzie’s mother, played with consummate plainspoken charm by Toni Scanlan. So does Atal. But rather than open up, Suzie shoves them all away.
Her self-protective impulse is not only self-destructive. In registering empathy as a psychological threat, Suzie also switches off her compassion, and in doing so abnegates her responsibilities to those who rely on her most.
Atal’s character is essential here, ensuring the story doesn’t disappear into the suffering of a privileged white woman – however real and terrible that suffering is. Atal’s voice and presence act as a counterweight. Suzie is at first ashamed by his adaptability and resilience. Why is she falling apart where he’s grown up amid incomprehensible suffering? But this response is a selfish one, and one which overlooks his cultural identity, and the profound difficulties of his isolation in a foreign land in which he has to start all over again. It is hard not to read Suzie’s slow-footed assistance at his request for visa support as morally reprehensible.
While the cumulative effect of Stop Girl is heart-wrenching – particularly in Harbridge’s shatteringly fragile performance – the play is surprisingly funny at times. Scanlan is just a delight, adding sparkling humour to the simplest of lines. The first half in particular is laced with pointed jabs at Sydney mums and inside jokes about the Australian media. (This last one no doubt appreciated by the Friday night crowd – “half the ABC is in the room,” one guest was heard to say in passing to Julia Baird.)
Under two hours long though emotionally exhausting, Stop Girl bravely speaks up against the silence around mental health in journalism. Taking us to the front lines of ordinary life following extraordinary pressure, Sara’s play shows the harm that our appointed ‘heroes’ risk doing to themselves, the healing power of honest connection and the immense courage it takes to survive in the aftermath of the unimaginable.
For bringing this deeply personal story to a public audience and before her peers, the ABC veteran should be proud.
Creation of this content supported by City of Sydney