The Shoehorn Sonata – History on the tellers lips. (Theatre Review)
The Shoehorn Sonata
Squeaky Dog Productions.
Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre (782 Kingsway, Gymea, Sydney).
3-9 February 2017 (At the time of posting this review, this run is complete, but there will be more shows. To find out where, click here.)
It was Winston Churchill who said “History is written by the victors.” Yet behind this understanding is a desire for truthfulness (or as Julia Kristeva puts it, This Overwhelming Need to Believe) and with it a suspicion of the idea of truth. The desire for truthfulness drives a process of criticism which weakens the assurance that there is any secure or unqualifiedly stateable truth. Suspicion fastens on groups of knowledge such as history. Accounts which have been offered as faithful to the truth of the past often turn out biased, ideological or self-serving. But attempts to replace these distortions with “the truth” may once more encounter the same kind of objection, and then the question arises, whether any historical account can claim to be true. This goes double for a female history, because not only does the victorious history of men not understand and therefore doubt the female version of events, but the language she has been given to describe those events favours his listening and not her telling.
John Misto dances lightly around the concept of truth, primarily because in 1995 these women’s stories were untold pieces of time, trauma and great suffering that went unrecognised by our governments and history. But all these years later, now more familiar with both the tale and neglect of documenting female stories, we find the play moves through time successfully to navigate the ideas of truth and representation. It is not only female horrors of war that are communicated with negligence if at all. We now know the tales of our brave soldiers have been transformed in an exploitative fashion to make war appear to be a place for heroes rather than a giant hellish pit for young men condemned to either death or a lifetime of trauma on behalf of the regularly irrational ambitions of older men. We are witnessing ourselves rocketing toward war right now (with whom will it be? Take your pick of nations) on behalf of the hysterical ego of one old white man, and Australia’s pledge to support America no matter who is in charge there. “Is it worth it?” The Shoehorn Sonata asks. Can we really sacrifice so much for the foolishness of so few?
Much of this perspective is brought to the fore in Joanna Joy’s direction. She keeps the set small and infused with images, past, present and contemporary, to draw out the “real” of lived experience rather than the “truth.” Truth, like victory, is an ephemeral, fleeting thing that has more to do with perspective than sensory perception or eye witness. Events occur outside of our ability to describe them, but it is in the naming of events that our world is built. We learn about each other, to define each other, and to understand each other this way. Anything less than this is a level of ignorance that will have you sitting alone. Even agreed upon parameters such as time and colour can’t be determined as fact. Therefore, to claim (as our and the British governments did) that this experience was not happening to the women at the time doesn’t just eliminate questions, it eliminates the ability to deal with questions. Joanna Joy’s changing images, her moving photographs and her modern projections allow for the narrative to expand through time away from the question of did this happen, toward a realisation that the truth is only ever what we can bare to say out loud.
Joanna Joy extracts great performances from her small cast. Noarah George (Sheila) and Narelle Jaeger (Bridie) embrace their roles with skill and enthusiasm, clearly confident under the guidance of Joy. They move around a simple set by Antony Robinson that never distracts from the narrative or the beauty of the all-important visuals projected onto a back wall. Charming touches such as the character Rick being onstage and played by a hesitant Will Hall and Lannaki Jones leading a choir in the foyer before the show flesh out this version of The Shoehorn Sonata and bring it further into the psyches of the audience. The result is a beautiful evening filled with deep resonance and empathy with the characters and a warm connection with other audience members.
The Shoehorn Sonata can, in the wrong hands, become a dry experience focussed on the telling of a neglected tale, but in the hands of Joanna Joy, it turns itself into a philosophical enquiry into the importance of storytelling, to the teller, the listener and the very concept of truth itself.