Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 5, 2020 – Jan 31, 2021
Playwright: Kendall Feaver (based on the novel by Miles Franklin)
Director: Kate Champion
Cast: Blazey Best, Jason Chong, Tom Conroy, Emma Harvie, Tracy Mann, Nikki Shiels, Guy Simon
Images by Brett Boardman
The play begins with Sybylla making unapologetic pronouncements, declaring that this is all going to be about herself. Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel My Brilliant Career, features a feisty woman in a man’s world, and although the story takes place during what we now acknowledge as being the first wave of feminism, Sybylla seems terribly alone in her defiance. In the Australian outback, the teenager dreams of an existence beyond marriage and child-bearing, and for some inexplicable yet gratifying reason, we discover that unlike all the other women in her life, Sybylla finds the hubris to see things through.
The old-fashioned tale is rejuvenated by playwright Kendall Feaver, who manufactures engaging scenes for her stage version. Although frustratingly conservative in style and vision, it is nevertheless a compelling portrait of a radical young woman from our fabled past. Kate Champion directs with excellent humour, buoyed by an infectious and irrepressible sense of playfulness. Production design by Robert Cousins is restrained, but effective in helping us keep focus on characters and relationships. Occasional dazzling manoeuvres by lighting designer Amelia Lever-Davidson, deliver an enjoyable theatricality, as do composer Chrysoulla Markoulli and sound designer Steve Francis, who prove themselves cheeky collaborators with the whimsy that they so cleverly inject.
Actor Nikki Shiels too is adept at playing with irony, as she successfully bridges the many decades, between the original conception of the protagonist and our modern times, with a memorable sass and confidence. Shiels’ passion fills the space, allowing us to connect with the uplifting and spirited qualities of Sybylla. It is a strong supporting cast that we encounter, with a notable Guy Simon, whose romantic rendition of a love interest is effortlessly convincing and quite splendid, and Tracy Mann who steals the show with all of her roles, each one considered and arresting.
My Brilliant Career offers nothing new, yet the resonances it provides, are disarmingly powerful. After all these years, we can still recognise that so many Australian women face the same problems, as though we are stuck in the 19th Century. We still talk about how we can “have it all”, and we still think it extraordinary and audacious that a whole story can be told about our hopes and dreams. Of course, in many ways, we have progressed, and feminism has improved many things, but there must be something about us that is trapped in the past, when we notice Sybylla’s story striking a chord.