A novel approach to a classic shows us a far-removed Australia

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A novel approach to a classic shows us a far-removed Australia

By Cameron Woodhead

THEATRE

My Brilliant Career ★★½

La Mama until August 8 (if permitted)

What does Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career have to say to the Australia of today?

A dated classic? <i>My Brilliant Career</i> at La Mama.

A dated classic? My Brilliant Career at La Mama.Credit:Darren Gill

Written when Franklin was a teenager and published with the Australian nation still in its infancy, the novel has proven a touchstone for stages in Australian artistic and political development; the irrepressible spirit of its heroine, Sybylla Melvin, continues to shine.

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Each generation faces its own battles: the 1979 film with Judy Davis, Sam Neill and Wendy Hughes remains a prime instance of Australian New Wave cinema – a movement that brought fresh confidence to Australian storytelling and coincided with second-wave feminism.

In 2021, this stage adaptation speaks most strongly to Sybylla’s passionate yearning for art, for books and music and theatre, for the life of the mind – her determination to participate in “the world at large” despite all the forces arrayed against her.

Christine Davey’s stage adaptation offers a no-frills production in period dress.

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It weaves in a framing device with a mature Miles Franklin (Madeleine Swain) watching kindly over her creation. This conceit draws out biographical resonances (Franklin shared Sybylla’s aversion to marriage, her ferocious will to free herself from social convention and carve out her own destiny), and features cameos from Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and the pioneering Australian suffragette Vida Goldstein.

The rags-to-riches-to-rags story is buoyed by Molly England performing the role of Sybylla with fresh-faced vitality. Characters surrounding her do tend to get compressed into peculiarly shallow Australian caricatures, perhaps most obviously and problematically in the portrayal of the McSwats, the illiterate family to whom Sybylla becomes an indentured servant.

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Franklin writes that her book isn’t a romance, nor yet a novel, but a yarn. The essence of that idea is captured by using rapid-fire choric effects and ensemble physical theatre, which generate a frenetic pace. But there’s rather more telling than showing (too much diegesis, not enough mimesis if you want to get pointy-headed about it) in this adaptation.

It may not be the most natural mode for a stage play, but it does have the advantage of preserving a novelistic ambit, including Franklin’s memorable descriptions of rural Australian life and landscape, and highlighting thematic concerns.

The Australia we live in is almost unimaginably different to the one in Franklin’s novel. But “the world at large” can feel a long way off during a pandemic, especially for lovers and makers of live performance, and witnessing Sybylla’s undaunted spirit – her passion for artistic and intellectual pursuit, however far away it seems – is a shot in the arm at this point in history.

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