Struggling to Belong Anywhere

A Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Carly Ellis as Isabella and Penny Larkins as Lizzie. Photographs by Daniel Burke.

Helen Begley: Voyage, The Good Girl Song Project, written by Helen Begley and directed by Ruby Rees, performed at fortyfivedownstairs on 18 May 2021.

It is remarkable to have four new and original plays coming to stages in Melbourne within a four-month period, but that’s what has happened this year. Two of them mobilise history: Meg McNena’s A Name for Herself, a biographical play about Constance Markievicz and Helen Begley’s Voyage which draws on the Bounty girl migrants who came to Australia before the Famine. The third, Runaway Priest by Felix Meagher, deals with more recent history and uses the Royal Commission and works of our time to investigate clerical abuse. All three have been reviewed in this magazine. The fourth is in preparation for Bloomsday and is inspired by biographies of James Joyce.

Feminist-socialist writer, composer and instrumentalist, Helen Begley’s Voyage is exhilarating, being driven by music which carries the emotion of two highly charged life-stories, featuring two girl-women. It began as a song cycle inspired by Liz Rushen’s several works on pre-Famine migrants to Australia, and it has evolved into a musical play with just two main characters (playing many more, and often playing men) and a band of three.

Liz Rushen’s histories provide a teeming canvas of thousands of women who were ‘Bounty’ migrants to Australia in the 1830s from which to choose the main protagonists: one, Lizzie, was based on a real English woman while the other Isabella was Irish on the (bad?) ship ‘Good Girl’. It’s no easy task to distil such a huge body of difficult lived experiences into a compelling narrative focusing on just two unmarried girls and to resist the urge to idealise and provide happy endings. But that is the strength of this play. It is wonderful to see a body of historical work making its way so thoughtfully and collaboratively on to the stage. The imperatives that drove the scheme in 1833 are familiar to modern Australians: skilled domestic and farm labourers were needed. Furthermore, the gender balance in the colony was heavily in favour of men because of the convict system, and needed to be righted. Many of the girls were Irish but that didn’t make them popular migrants. Difference between white races were grounds enough for racism, abuse and exclusion. 

The play’s heartfelt welcome to country was far from tokenistic: it informed the audience that the play had profited from another consultative relationship – with Nola Jensen-Turner, a Wiradjuri elder – about frontier violence on both sides, one of the many fears of the migrating girls about going beyond the settled district for much-needed work, fears that were of course exploited by the colonial media and self-serving politicians, and subscribed to by many settlers, to the detriment of the country’s indigenous population. This is nuanced migration history rendered comprehensible and self-consciously multi-cultural.

The staging was austere, minimalist, aesthetically pleasing and theatrically inventive, under Carly Ellis’s sepia-toned design with blue and pink highlights. It sat well in the blank canvas that is the extraordinary playing space of fortyfivedownstairs (theatre), which invites such makeovers and proves its chameleon qualities show by show. Nothing on the set was decorative, so a piece of turned wood could transform into a heaving ship’s handrail, while the band could supply, entertainingly, all manner of sound-effects – a ship’s whistle, the creaking of sails and timbers, the sound of a washboard.  A maid’s broom could turn into a sexually predatory upper-class male intent on forcing a loveless union.

Costumes too were minimalist: plain black culottes were layered with blue and pink corsets, designed to make the two girls foils, and various other subtle character-building touches added: a rosary for the good girl, Isabella, and a simple cameo and jabot for the cold-hearted employer, played by Penny Larkins, or in a seamless bit of gender-bending, a pair of black gloves could transform her into a predatory male superintendant. This is a show that at every turn reveals the love that has gone into its conception and development, and the theatrical and musical smarts that inform its execution. It’s super rich on telling detail.

The two lead actors, Carly Ellis and Penny Larkins, were a powerhouse of energy: both hugely talented women with multiple music and acting skills to draw on, and with contrasting and complementary vocal styles, one lyrical, the other raunchier, more grounded. They each played multiple roles, Carly six and Penny seven, all very different one from another – in gender, class and dialect. The transformations were an essential element of the theatricality of the show and each was clearly differentiated and physicalised. Lizzie was angular, boyish, fun-loving, coarse, while Isabella was more tremulous and delicately feminine, but not lacking in her own form of courage, and insisting on her integrity. The narrative has them orphaned or abandoned, and shipped out on the testimonials of clergymen, grudging in Lizzie’s case. The voyage, difficult enough in itself, was the more so because they knew they were leaving the known world for the last time: ‘the wind sounds like a mother’s wail’ and ‘the ocean swelled from me mouth to me feet’. Isabella’s prayer, rosary in hand, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, send my prayers to Grace O’Malley’ made for some lighter moments as Isabella invoked the courage and daring of the seventeenth-century pirate queen of Ireland. Helen Begley’s original compositions supplied the emotions of homesickness and loss of certainty achingly and were sung with heart and gusto by the two actors. One could not but feel deeply for the precariousness of the safety of these girls and the hardships they faced half a world away from Europe.

As good girl, Isabella Gibson and rough diamond Lizzie Wade, they were excellent foils to represent the varying fortunes of the girls in a strange and highly misogynistic world of sexually hungry men, the one staunchly protecting her virtue and the other seeking her pleasures where she could in a world that was decidedly threatening. Their friendship is unlikely and educative, with Isabella learning eroticism from the more experienced woman, a joyful moment on shipboard. The profusion of double entendres added much-needed levity. Just what it was to arrive in Sydney amidst a throng of men seeking to escape from bachelordom was violently conveyed, no mean feat with two actors: the three musicians were very effective as an instant crowd scene of heckling men. The depiction of Lizzie surviving first as a sailor’s paramour ‘enjoying a little comfort and protection’, and later, more certainly, as a rough publican in Sydney. Isabella, by contrast, was vulnerable to her employer the po-faced Mrs Flaxman, and Begley does not spare us just how easy it was to discredit these lonesome women and force them to into the brutal control of a cruel convict system. It’s a grainy story, crammed with well-researched detail, and one of surviving against the odds, joyfully, though it’s by no means romanticised. 

The Ensemble, L to R: Penny Larkins, Helen Begley, Carly Ellis, Kylie Morrigan, Penelope Swales. Photo by Daniel Burke.

The music for this show, as well as conveying the sadness and despondency of these girls, was often used to uplift. It had its origins in the Irish folk tradition, though it sometimes diverged into other traditions like Gilbert and Sullivan. Kylie Morrigan on the fiddle and Penelope Swales on the tin whistle, alongside Helen Begly, all clearly very experienced musicians, augmented the soundscape with improvised clicks and evocative vocalisations.

It is a huge tribute to this project that, as a play in its première season, it has been selected for inclusion in the VCE drama texts. One can easily understand why: it tells the story of young women in the same age group as most of the students and its theme of unwanted migrants is a perennial in Australian history. It will surprise and hopefully galvanise young audiences to think about the Irish as the victims of exclusionary politics and the ongoing toxic legacy of needing but demonising and refusing to integrate new migrant groups. 

It was impossible not to enjoy this show, and I noted that the schoolgirl audience from Siena College behind us was very attentive. It should be a hit not only with them, but also with more general audiences. It offers much to heart, mind and ear. Congraulations to Ruby Rees and her team for a passionate show that was both elegant and homespun, and inventively minimalist in the best sense.

Frances Devlin-Glass is a literary studies academic who has been reviewing plays since the early 1980s and is a member of the Tinteán collective.