Review: HYDRA at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

By: May. 03, 2019
Review: HYDRA at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 2nd May 2019.

State Theatre Company of South Australia and Queensland Theatre, in association with Adelaide Festival Centre, are presenting Hydra, by Sue Smith, the story of George Johnston OBE (20 July 1912 - 22 July 1970) and his second wife, Charmian Clift (30 August 1923 - 8 July 1969). It is set between 1954 and 1964, when they were leaders of the Bohemian community living on the Greek island of Hydra (?δρα, pronounced eethra), and briefly after, in Sydney.

It is told as a memory play from the point of view of George and Charmian's eldest son, the poet, Martin Johnston (12 November 1947 - 21 June 1990), chronicling George Johnston and Charmian Clift's time as the leaders of Hydra's bohemian expatriate community. Nadia Wheatley, Martin's partner from 1972-8, was the biographer who wrote/edited The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift. She also edited a number of Clift's essays in The Selected Essays of Charmian Clift. They, too, lived in Greece, between 1975 and 1977.

When they met, Johnston was an ex-war correspondent, now journalist, and Clift, eleven years his junior, was a rising journalist in her own right. During their time on the island, Johnston was trying to write 'the great Australian novel' and what eventuated was My Brother Jack, winner of the Miles Franklin Award. This was followed by the sequel, Clean Straw for Nothing, which also won the Miles Franklin Award. He was working on the third novel in the trilogy, the unfinished, A Cartload of Clay, when he died from the pulmonary tuberculosis that had plagued him for quite some time. Clift took her own life a year earlier with an overdose of barbiturates, just before the publication of his second book. She abandoned the writing of her own book, The End of the Morning, to support him in writing his novel.

Johnston's three books are semi-autobiographical novels about a writer named David Meredith. Some of the text in this play is taken from her work, Peal Me a Lotus, and his second novel, Clean Straw for Nothing, giving a direct flavour of their work to the play.

Their idyllic life on the island, where they planned to focus on their writing, gradually turned to tragedy. They were both heavy smokers and alcoholics and, as his illness progressed and their poverty overwhelmed them, they argued and fought more and more often and, as the rift between them widened and his illness and treatment left him impotent, she turned to other men, her infidelity further widening the gap between them. They became both self and mutually destructive.

Tragedy followed their children, too. Their daughter, Shane, took her own life, Gae, the daughter from his first marriage, died of a drug overdose, and Martin died as a result of his alcoholism. Only their youngest son, Jason, is still alive. Martin said that "The way my parents lived has perhaps been disastrous for me in the long term ... they wrote from say seven in the morning till midday, then went down to the waterfront and got pissed. And I suppose that's a pattern of life that I've followed ever since."

Local favourite, Nathan O'Keefe, appears as Martin, a role that is part narrator and part Greek chorus. Although he does not appear in this play, another friend of theirs on Hydra was the Canadian, Leonard Cohen, at that time a poet, and not yet a songwriter and performer. O'Keefe gives a nod to Cohen by playing guitar and singing, as Cohen would do when they all met at the local taverna. O'Keefe brings a sympathetic reading to the role of their son, left to bring himself up and never quite understanding all that is going on at the tender age of eight years old.

Anna McGahan plays Charmian, displaying both the strength and the fragility of her character and showing her frustration at having to put aside her own dreams and aspirations to assist George, always overshadowed by him. She offers a most sensitive portrayal of Charmian.

Brian Probets is George, embodying the hard living, charismatic writer, sinking into depression and anger at his own physical deterioration and forced to face his mortality. His characterisation is wide ranging, from that 'hail fellow, well met' bon vivant at the centre of every party, to the obnoxious drunken bully.

Their closest friends are Vic and Ursula, invented names for the painter, Sir Sidney Nolan, and his writer wife, Cynthia Reed. Hugh Parker and Tiffany Lyndall-Knight bring strong performances to the roles as the voices of reason, offering good advice out of care for their friends but, eventually, realising that they cannot help and have to just walk away.

Kevin Spink plays the overly amorous neighbour, Jean-Claude, adding a little humour, but with a not entirely convincing French accent. He also transforms into another two, very different characters.

Designer, Vilma Mattila, has created a clean, white set, with a curving wall all around against which steps cling, fronted by a flagstone ground. It very effectively eastablishes that feeling of a Greek beachside property. Lighting designer, Nigel Levings, brings the warm Greek summer sun, and the clear starlit night to effect a range of changes. Quentin Grant then adds an evocative musical background to complete the effect.

Now, a half-century later, I could not but help wonder how many in the audience had actually read My Brother Jack, or even heard of it, let along the two other books in the trilogy, or, for that matter, how many had heard of Johnston, let alone Clift, before seeing this play. It is an intriguing question.

Photography, Jeff Busby

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