Two teenagers run through a dump at the edge of a town, bordering the local cemetery. The dump is, as most dumps are, an unorganised mess; piled high with old mattresses, discarded boots and tin cans that threaten to cut through skin. In contrast, the cemetery is regimented: believers in the Church of England lie together over here; the Presbyterians here; the Methodists there.
Of course, in Brink Productions’ The Aspirations of Daise Morrow, this isn’t the scene we literally see. We sit in wooden chairs arranged in concentric circles in Michael Hankin’s design, on grass that has died long ago – as much from the summer sun and rainless months of our imaginations, as its confinement inside a darkened theatre in reality. Gumleaves scatter the ground; an occasional fly flits past your eyes.
It was Lum Whalley (James Smith) who was at the dump with his family; while Meg Hogben (Lucy Lehmann) was supposed to be at the cemetery with hers for the funeral of her Auntie Daise. But as teenage girls do, she breaks through the fence and finds a boy. They talk: she in the manner of an awkward but intelligent girl; he with a false bravado betrayed by hands that fidget with his pocketknife.
Director Chris Drummond lifts the text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. He edits the work slightly, but largely these are White’s words, narration and all. In many ways, it’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation, of dumps filled with mattresses and divided cemeteries. Yet, too often, Drummond’s commitment to White’s words can mean we’re unsure exactly why we’re hearing them in a theatre – let alone one so meticulously crafted.
Metres above our head, a cloth stretches taught: it’s the sky, perhaps, yellow and oppressive with heat. Nigel Levings’ lighting design illuminates the whole world: the dump, the streets of Sarsaparilla, the Hogbens’ yard; later he darkens the space and allows only a pinprick of light to fall onto the bed of Daise Morrow. Seated throughout the audience, at times the Zephyr Quartet pluck out themes for the characters, or their composition lusciously mirrors and carries the play’s emotions, strings vibrating with the dissonant sound of heat haze shimmering in the air.
When Lum and Meg run through the dump, the play lifts and locates its life and light within this design. Their brown leather shoes pound the earth and their arms swing. As they run, you feel the wind that weaves through the disorder of the dump. You feel the joy produced by a youthful sprint with the knowledge no one can touch you; the joy of seeing how fast your feet can move, how much vigor you can take on the world with.
Then, it’s over. Two actors collapse in the middle of the theatre. It’s a moment that can only truly be understood having shared this space with these performers as they circled behind and between us. And, too soon, we return to moments weighed down by an absolute commitment to text over an embodiment of space.
Perhaps what is most interesting about my response to this moment of release is how sharply it focused my understanding of the production on Lum and Meg. Throughout the work, Drummond doubles his cast of four to present all of the characters in the world, and this draws out connections between characters. Lehmann and Smith double as Meg/Daise and Lum/Daise’s lover Ossie, respectively. Consequently, when Drummond focuses the play on Meg we also focus on Daise. In watching a young teen ready to take on the world, we also consider her aunt who sat outside of the norm, who struck her own path, and who, in defiance to her family, found her lover in a man whose meningitis meant he ‘was never all that bright’. Meg’s story trails Daise’s: a teenager at the age of discovering herself and the world, and the aunt whose aspirations she will follow.
Lehmann’s Meg is a delight. She possesses the knock-kneed awkwardness of a teenage girl uncomfortable with the amount of space she takes up in the world, but a voice still filled with youthful defiance and dreams that are yet to be shattered. Smith, a truly stunning actor, deftly balances the transition between the youthful Lum and the older Ossie. Both Paul Blackwell and Kris McQuade do a fine job in their roles as both Meg and Lum’s parents, but the story never truly feels like it belongs to them or their characters.
Unfortunately, Lehmann is too young and inexperienced an actor to fully convey the vivacity we’re told Daise possesses. Watching this production, you cannot help but feel White’s Daise, ‘large by nature’, was a more remarkable woman than this apparition is able to evoke. Lehmann cannot reach the fullness of this grown woman, defying the world and its expectations. The unrealised spirit of Daise hovers on the edge of Drummond’s production, but she’s never quite found.
Or perhaps she is found, in the whispers of the spirit of Meg, running through the dump as space shifts with her, the theatre growing larger as her breath grows louder. In breaking free of White’s words, for just a moment, Drummond is able to be free with his characters, and in this freedom he finds Meg and Lum’s freedom, and the version of Daise who had said: ‘I’m going to enjoy the good things of life.’
Brink Productions’ The Aspirations of Daise Morrow played the Space Theatre, Adelaide, 10–24 October 2015. Season closed.