For actor Stacey Duckworth, family history is contained in a ring given to her when she was 13 by her grandfather, one of the famed Rats of Tobruk and former prisoner of war.
“I didn’t quite understand the value of it at the time,” Duckworth admits. “He would tell me all these stories of his time at war, and I wish I could have held on to them, be someone who could value them. But I was 13 … I didn’t appreciate it at the time. It’s an awful thing. He was the keeper of those things … and so sometimes I think, yeah, what a terrible keeper I’ve been. But it’s special to me now.”
Annie Stafford has precious photos of her grandmother, who died recently. She’s glad she made a point of visiting her grandmother (“with scones”) to listen to her stories – not least because that’s how she learned her grandmother was once an actor herself.
“She was Miss Theatre Australia in 1950 and travelled through all these country towns,” Stafford says. “That’s how she met my grandfather. He was studying law but he worked as a stage manager. The portraits I have of her were taken by Helmut Newton.”
Someday, Charles Upton will inherit the Lismore house he was raised in. It was built by his great-grandfather. His grandmother grew up there. So did his mother.
“I can only imagine the things that have gone on in that house,” Upton says. “Which is why you need people to tell you the stories about the things you inherit. If you don’t have that, then objects actually lose meaning really quickly.”
A table full of stories
Homes without stories are just houses. Heirlooms without their original meaning are mere collectables. But those that come down the generations with their stories attached can define a family’s history – for better or worse.
Duckworth, Stafford and Upton are members of the nine-strong cast of the Sydney premiere of UK playwright Tanya Ronder’s drama Table, a drama exploring the ways in which different people remain connected across centuries by the objects and stories that come down to them from their ancestors.
In this case, the object is a table, lovingly handcrafted in late Victorian England by David Best (played by Brendan Miles) for his bride-to-be.
Decades later, and on another continent, we encounter that table again, this time in the possession of Best’s granddaughter, Sarah, a Christian missionary.
Flash forward a half-century again, to the London of the present day, and now the table belongs to Sarah’s descendent Su-Lin.
In the timbers of that table reside the stories of six generations. Every blemish in its surface is a tiny moment of a family’s history preserved.
Moving through 115 years, and involving more than 20 characters, Table is a technically complex play, says director Kim Hardwick. “Everybody plays multiple roles. Some actors play the same character at different ages or even play their own parent in some instances. It’s really fantastic to see those kinds of quick changes happening as the play bounces from now to the 1800s and back. It’s quite balletic.”
It’s not the technical challenge that drew Hardwick to the script, however.
“My family’s fucked, just like everybody else’s,” she laughs. “When I look at old photographs of my mum and dad and at the Facebook series we’ve been doing for the show, I can’t help but look at those faces and think, did you know what was going to happen to you? How could you have planned out the fact that this happened, and this happened, and this happened?”
“I’m interested in family history but I’m really fascinated by the idea of how we shake off that history. How do we cleanse ourselves of the past and create our own momentum? That’s what the play addresses.”
Not every family has a happy story, Garner observes. “And one of the points the play makes is that it’s possible for any object and any story to end. A story can be trauma passed down the line but it’s possible for there to be closure. You can say, I’m done with this table. Let’s go IKEA. Let’s start again.”
At the same time he is rehearsing Table, Garner is also processing some family history of his own.
“I’ve been going through stuff of my mum’s that we’ve had in storage for the last two and a half years. She going through dementia and my sibling and I have to decide what we are going to do with it. And some of it is precious – things brought down from France, from all over, some of these things have a real history in our family. But it may well be that we’ll just sell it, or give it away or something.
“We’ve done our work coming to terms with how we grew up, so this might be the end of the line. We might just keep a little bit of this or that to represent everything that’s been carried around the world.”
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Table will resonate with anyone with ‘family stuff’ to deal with, Hardwick says.
“I think by the end, what we’re trying to say is that through storytelling, we can heal. People can move on. If we keep ignoring or not asking the questions about why behaviour is cycling, then it will just continue. The table – metaphorically speaking – will continue to be scarred, and we pass it down to our children.
“But what happens during the course of this play is that the stories are all brought out into the open and people are made accountable. People are informed of the actions that they’ve taken and the effect that that’s had on others.
“By the end of it, there is a great sense of grief for those actions, but also release, an acceptance.”
It’s a lot of metaphorical weight for one piece of furniture. A lot of thought went into finding a table that could carry it.
The table of Table is a bespoke piece, created by designer-artist Mark Swartz.
“Mark’s main gig is making beautiful installations in wood. If you go to his website you’ll see some of the beautiful artwork he makes. He made the table for us specifically – it has to be a certain size and it has to do certain things during the play. It’s a character in the story, too. It is a catalyst for the breaking of one cycle and the making of another. It is transformed.”
Table also features Danielle King, Brendan Miles, Mathew Lee, Chantelle Jamieson and Nicole Pingon.
It plays in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until August 17