Ladies In Black – Language reveals its creative beauty and stylish prison. (Theatre review)

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“A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in Creation you know; you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or at least silly, which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can; put their noses out of joint for them.”

In a Post-truth, world, we are seeing that bias, rather than difference is the thing to be celebrated. It’s possible now, to suspect that bias is all that exists, and difference no longer represents authenticity, but a variety of the great lie. A word is as good as a chemical, but it carries its own toxins. A discourse can act like a contagion, surround, close off and imprison, or it can liberate, cure, nourish and fecundate. But it is almost never even-handed or fair-minded. Even if certain practises make an effort toward neutrality, it can only exist as a goal, or a tangent and never reached. Madeline St John writes the embodiment of this principle in her book The Women In Black. The book speaks a certain sort of narrative that is informed by its future. This book set in Sydney in the late 1950’s, yet written in 1993, contains its own time-cenric reflection, as if a sixty-year-old woman tells her story into a mirror that echoes her back as she appeared in her twenties. The reflection isn’t the truth, but it is a close representation. Here, it is curving itself in response to the wisdom of age.

This makes The Women in Black both simple and complex at the same time. A book intended to be read decades after it was set, it plays with time, but also writes absence of indigenous colour and biased language into its backward glance. St John has been well represented by Carolyn Burns and Tim Finn, who have made the musical Ladies in Black an accurate study in the nuances and evocative sectarianism of the book, while using the theatre musical to further enhance the transformation brought about by one females perspective. Moving beyond a meditation on racism and sexism, Ladies in Black plays with the tropes of The Musical to include a sense of the smallness of 1950’s Australia, often made larger and grander through nostalgia. Yes the times were simpler, but ignorance didn’t just prevent voices being heard, it also stopped us eating salami and reading Nietzsche!

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Ladies in Black then, is not only a bildungsroman for its main character Lisa, but it is equally one for Australia itself. Australia’s very development as a cultural force depends on the education of all its citizens (female and male) and the embracing of its immigrants. What makes Ladies in Black different (and delightful) is that it includes its alternate perspectives, allows for personal bias, and presumes an inevitable transcendence. Lisa’s father does not change his mind on educating women, he does what many men in his situation do – he makes Lisa the exception that proves his rule. Lisa wants to be a poet, and may spend the rest of her life of words unable to explain her choice to her father, but Australia will be better for it culturally, even if her father can’t appreciate or understand. Dissenting narratives are the norm. Consensus is not necessary if Lisa is free to act.

It is no accident that Lisa repeats William Blake’s poem The Tyger from his Songs of Innocence and Experience. This is a poem about the reflection of the creator in his creation. But it equally hints at the terrible nature of a creator willing to create the good with the bad. The Tyger is perfectly beautiful, yet perfectly destructive, as are the words of the poet himself. Every word carries its own toxins, every utterance its own bias. Speech is an act of creation. As Australia grows in a more sophisticated manner, educates its women and welcomes its immigrants, what horrors in its history become revealed?

Ladies in Black is an impossible to hate thing of cerebral beauty that uses subtlety and wit instead of bombastic musical numbers to draw intimacy from a large audience. It is delicate and sweet, funny and cute, yet unnerving and complex. Sarah Morrison is perfect as Lesley (Lisa) Miles, our ingénue at the start, who develops in a worldly was as she gets closer to Natalie Gamsu who plays the wild and informed Hungarian sophisticate Magda. Carolyn Burns’ ability to translate St John’s work to the stage is remarkable, not just for her connection to language style, but also for her ability to retain the complex structure inside the book. This is supported by Director Simon Phillips and stage designer Gabriela Tylesova who keep the simple aesthetic deceptively nuanced and rich.

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Tim Finns score equally adds to the beauty of the time, but carries the effortless modernisation of St John’s point with it. Songs move in and out of period and (delightfully for me) serve to enhance the text rather than overwhelm and engulf it as is the norm for large scale musicals.

Ladies in Black is a delightful show, filled with the wit warmth and wisdom of the book. This is a must see for the Sydney Festival. Far deeper and more complex than its pretty packaged surface implies, Ladies in Black is the best thing I have seen at the Lyric Theatre.

Highly recommended.

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