[THEATRE ~ SA]
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, Sat 4 May.
The Greek island of Hydra has long been known as a haven for international artists. Principal among them was Leonard Cohen, who met and fell in love with the woman he sang about on his debut album – So Long Marianne. Among the international artist community in post-war Hydra were Australian writers George Johnston (Bryan Probets) and Charmian Clift (Anna McGahan). They’d come to Hydra to follow their muse and escape the mundanities of Australian suburbs. Within their Hydra circle of friends was the then struggling artist, Sidney Nolan. Also included in their inner bohemian circle was Jean-Claude, a stereotypical French painter played by Kevin Spink.
So far so good. They were heady times and everyone was optimistic about their ability to carve out their niche in the Australian artistic psyche. Fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol and a prodigious work ethic they pump out the pages. However, George soon starts cramping his partner’s creative style and a series of rejections from publishers ushers in poverty and hardship. The struggling artist is no longer a romantic dream but a harsh reality. And George doesn’t cope with it very well. Severe illness doesn’t help and he becomes more and more unpleasant. Charmian on the other hand holds their lives together and keeps food on the table for them and their growing family, but she understandably turns elsewhere for affection.
The theme of artists struggling to make sense of their existence while being mired in substance abuse is not new. What should make Hydra more appealing for Australian audiences is the fact that it concerns Australian expatriates living abroad in an exotic paradise, and that perhaps the tyranny of distance in reverse might provide them with some insight into the Australian psyche and culture. But the fact that they were living on Hydra doesn’t detract from the fact they George and Charmian weren’t very nice people. You don’t get a sense that Hydra meant very much to them at all – they enjoyed ‘the idea’ of being there but they actually don’t seem to enjoy anything very much.
But then maybe that’s Hydra’s point. The artist or writer dreams of the idyllic location that will enable their muse to soar but, in the end, self-indulgence and a cantankerous nature will grind the muse into nothingness.
The set looked alluringly and wonderfully Greek and allowed for some intriguing use of light and shadow that often suggested alter egos or alternative opinions. As must be the case on a Greek island the metaphor of the sea was exploited artfully, and having the first born of George and Charmian on stage throughout as our narrator worked well. De rigueur references to Greek mythology added a supernatural layer that offered alternative explanations as to why so many run adrift amid Hydra’s beauty.
Bryan Probets as George was superb, and I enjoyed Tiffany Lyndall-Knight in the role of the would-be friend who dared tell the truth about the writers’ indulgent expatriate lifestyles.
Yes it was a sweeping tale that promised much, but you’re left with this lingering feeling that the protagonists were deeply flawed, and didn’t deserve to be in such a beautiful place. Had they been holed up in some dive in Paddington or Brunswick the outcome would have been much the same. The fact they were in Hydra didn’t seem that relevant, unless of course there is some truth in what Greek mythology tells us about this exotic isle.
Hydra continues at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, at various times, until Sun 19 May.
Book at BASS on 13 12 46 or bass.com.au. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.
Images courtesy of Jeff Busby