Essay by Julian Meyrick
Drama is not about what gets said and done but what gets understood. The ostensible content of a play can be different from its emotional substance, or the impact it has when performed live on stage by actors capable of realising its deepest reverberations. A simple example in Radiance is that at no point do the words ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ appear in the text. As Louis Nowra explains in his introduction:
During rehearsals the three actresses determined that Radiance should not be seen as ‘an Aboriginal play’. In other words, they didn’t want an issue-based play where the Aboriginal characters became abstractions in order to make polemical points. So all references to the women’s Aboriginality were cut. Although the characters were obviously Aboriginal, the most important thing was the emotional narrative. The play centres on three family members who are strangers. It deals with their efforts to come to terms with each other and with the devastating consequences of family secrets. From these things came other resonances.
The plot of Radiance – as opposed to its narrative, an important distinction – is simple, and fits the unifying parameters of classical drama laid out by Aristotle in his Poetics two-and-a-half thousand years ago. It has one primary location, unfolds over a short period of time, and deals with the consequences of a single ‘inciting incident’: the death of Mary McKenna, mother of Mae, Nona and Cressy, who must come north to tropical Queensland to bury her and deal with the dilapidated wooden beach house in which she lived. The sisters each had separate fathers and it is their different childhoods, and their different perceptions looking back as adults, that provide the stuff of the plot. The narrative, by contrast, is more complex and disconcerting. It includes not only the conversational traffic as the sisters, by turns, support each other, torment each other, and reveal – like patients coughing up blood – their conflicted pasts, but also the eerie mood that envelops the action like moonlight on the mudflats of the receding tide outside.
It is in this sense that we can talk about Radiance as being ‘character based’ rather than ‘plot driven’. The allure of the play, and its concentration of feeling, arises from the deft weaving together of small, seemingly disparate interactions: Nona’s donning of different coloured wigs; Mae’s emergence from the kitchen with a suddenly discovered bottle of wine; Cressy’s anxiety about her throat (her literally ‘stiff neck’). Each of these details, applied with the lightest of touch and never exploited for sentimental effect, contributes to a set of relationships that is more than the sum of its parts. What makes them penetrable for us as an audience is that we all have families ourselves, and all families have secrets of one sort or another. So Radiance‘s story does not present to us as a secular sermon, a ‘worthy’ vehicle for ‘thought provoking’ issues, but invites us in, like a door creaking open as we pass it by, asking for our co-operation in exploring a strange but compelling imaginative interior.
Arithmetic says that if there are three characters in the play then there are seven discrete relationships: the three the girls have with each other, the three they have with themselves, and the one they have together, as sisters. Things are more complicated, however, if Mary is thrown into the mix. In Radiance, Mary is more than a figure from the past, she is the past, and though she is dead before the action begins, she leaves behind a Gothic symbol of her residual presence: the wooden beach house. In the play, this is one of only two locations, the major one. It, more than Mary, becomes the target of the sisters’ memories – raucous, nostalgic, hate-filled. It is the objective correlative of the ‘secret’ that underscores the play as a whole. And it is the house that attracts sanctifying fire when, towards the end, and for different reasons, the three sisters decide to burn it to the ground.
Though Nowra insists he was not interested in writing a play about ‘white guilt, black victimhood and so forth’, it is remarkable how many larger problems are evoked in the unbundling of the sisters’ lives. The play, first staged in 1993 at Belvoir Street Theatre – a crucible of new Australian drama – was prescient. In 1995, Aboriginal activist Rob Riley published Telling Our Story, a report spreading awareness about the government policies that forcibly removed thousands of Aboriginal children from their families. In 1996, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission set up the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, and in 1997 its official report, Bringing Them Home, was released. Radiance does not deal directly with this aspect of Australia’s past (the contrast is with Jane Harrison’s Stolen, premiering in 1998, which does). It does not deal directly with any issue because the sisters’ uncontainable lives are not reducible to ‘issues’. Nevertheless, Mary’s hectic love life – at once deplorable and free – symbolises, like a map legend, many of the things that have poisoned, and continue to poison, relations between white and black Australians. The sisters are not mouthpieces for social problems. Like Nona, they can be superciliously indifferent to politics. But chronic abuse has defined their lives nevertheless, imparting a legacy of damaged energy each must manage in her own way.
Radiance is not a long play – two hours at most. It is ‘centripetal’ rather than ‘centrifugal’, its energy tending inwards, indicating that the real events are happening within the minds and hearts of the characters. Nowra refers to the play’s ‘claustrophobic’ quality and indicates that ‘the slow pace of Act One’ was a problem in rehearsals. Yet it is in Act One where a sense of emotional suspense is generated, where the detail of the sisters’ lives is supplied, and where the set up for the ‘Black Prince’ revelation in Act Two is constructed with lapidarian care. In managing these demanding playwriting tasks – so successfully that in performance the story flows seamlessly, without apparent contrivance – a crucial job is performed by humour. And not just mild jokes and asides of the sort that decorate all living-room dramas, but outrageous, gob-smacking comedy that turns the pain of the sisters’ lives it on its head. A gallows humour. Radiance‘s comedy presses outwards, a countervailing force against the tragedy within, keeping the play buoyant and tripping forward.
Humour has a special place in Australian drama and Nowra’s play follows in the footsteps of Sumner Locke-Eliot’s Rusty Bugles (about World War II servicemen), Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (about Queensland cane cutters) and Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year (about the legacy of ANZAC day) in its mixing of serious themes with comedic tones. It is a striking combination that makes for some of the most compelling dramas produced in Australia. In terms of Nowra’s own body of work, Radiance falls in a middle period, poised between darkly allegoric early plays like Inner Voices, Inside the Island and The Golden Age, and later, more naturalistic ones, like Incorruptible, Language of the Gods and The Boyce Trilogy. Like his 1992 play, Così – also turned into a film – Radiance benefits from both Nowra’s non-naturalistic playwriting past, and his escape from it. Many plays dubbed ‘realistic’ are either nothing of the kind, or are a hybrid, a blending of tones and styles. So it is with Radiance, whose rich emotionalism results from a mingling of real situation – a funeral where, plausibly, people ‘come clean’ with each other – with a dark imagism that owes a debt to Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher.
Radiance can also be usefully compared to other dramas concerned with dysfunctional sisterly relationships, particularly Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Shelagh Stephenson’sMemory of Water. The great example, however, is Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. It does not impugn the originality of Radiance to recognise its inclusion in this sub-genre. As the crime writer Raymond Chandler once remarked, there is a difference between writing with a formula, and writing to one.
While Nowra is the sole author of Radiance his introduction makes it clear that the play, and later the film adaptation, benefitted from collaboration at crucial moments in its development. This is particularly true of the ‘solve’ of the Black Prince story. It is Cressy’s memory of her double violation (first at the hands of her abuser, later by the disbelief of her mother) that is metaphorically trapped in the cellar below the house. Rosalba Clemente, the director of the Belvoir Street production, recalls:
There was a pre-existing personal relationship between Lydia Miller, Rhoda Roberts and Louis Nowra. They had long asked him to write something for them. He had an inspiration after staying in Yeppoon and being taken with the images of the mud flats there. Neil Armfield and Robyn Kershaw at Belvoir saw the potential. At that time they were nurturing me as a newly emerging young director, and they put Louis and I together for a coffee. That was the beginning of our dramaturgical relationship on the piece. Our most exciting day was the day we found the story of the Black Prince who had raped one of his lover’s daughter’s who then kept the child as her own. It formed the climactic moment of the play where Nona discovers Cressy is her mother and not her sister. Lydia and Rhoda were already cast and when I cast the actress Rachel Maza, the triad of sisters was complete.
The play remains significant. It is a good piece of writing – a great story. It has found its place in the canon. It was a credit in many ways to both Louis [and Belvoir] to take on a fairly inexperienced director and cast – Indigenous and Italian–Australian young women to boot. Was it easy? No. Was the production successful? Partially. You only have to read the reviews in the Bulletin and the Sydney Morning Herald to see how polarised people were. It took guts. Taking risks moves things forward. Art is, and should always remain, the riskiest of businesses. The points around gender and racial politics were not controversial but were certainly not the norm at the time. The question remains whether we have come far enough since 1993.
Radiance is mentioned in the entry on Louis Nowra in Currency Press’s Companion to Australia Theatre, and discussed by John McCallum in Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century. It is dealt with at length in Veronica Kelly’s The Theatre of Louis Nowra. Like all plays, it is a drama of its time because it was a drama for its time, and this should be borne in mind when reading it now. Nevertheless, there are features of the writing that suggest it transcends its period origins. The sisters’ differing personalities – Mae’s orderliness, Nona’s recklessness and Cressy’s disdain – are adeptly established and cleverly subverted. A balance between faster-paced dialogue and longer speeches is achieved in a way that audiences get a sense of both how the sisters are with each other, and what they are thinking and feeling in themselves. Time is successfully condensed as an emotional resource, so that by the end of Act One we feel we know the women intimately after only an hour in their company.
A difference between the play and the film of Radiance is that things suggested in the former are shown directly in the latter. An example is Nona’s sexual behavior during Mary’s funeral, aimed at the local parish priest. In the play this is reported action, as is the fact that only the sisters attended the church service. In the film we see Nona’s flirting and the empty church for ourselves. McCallum calls Radiance ‘Nowra’s most classically simple play’ and part of the reason for this lies in its concision, its economy of means. The conscious minimalism forces audiences to imagine things for themselves. In his introduction to the film, by contrast, Nowra gives a rationale for a more visually expansive approach to the screen adaptation: ‘Should we try to open out Radiance for film, or maintain the claustrophobic intensity of the play? We knew the second half would open out naturally, with the mudflats that were a feature of the play. I also wanted to make sure we portrayed North Queensland, especially the sugarcane fields, because people always associate Aborigines with the outback rather than the tropics. We wanted Radiance not only to be different but to look different.’ Whether the shift from suggesting things to showing things benefits the drama overall, however, would make an interesting point of discussion.
Despite Radiance‘s louring mood and the fact that the sisters’ lives are so confronting, the final image of the play is one of hope. An act of destruction, the burning of Mary’s house – which turns out not to be hers after all, but a white lover’s who won’t acknowledge her – is also an act of liberation. Later productions have shown the sisters scattering Mary’s ashes to the night wind, the remains of the house and the remains of their mother comingling and blowing away over the mudflats beyond.
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Clemente, R 2015, Private correspondence with the author, 9 Jan.
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© Copyright Julian Meyrick 2015