Motherland (Ellen Belloo)
Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre
October 30 – November 16
It is fitting that Barbara Lowing’s character is the first to speak in “Motherland”, given that her involvement was what initiated my motivation to see the show. And she is in fine form, immediately engaging the audience with her feisty performance as a 90 year old Russian ‘cabbage with lipstick.’ And Lowing is just one member of what is a talented ensemble cast who each give measured, nuanced performances.
Performances aside, however, what is most engaging about this work is the beauty and intelligence of its narrative. “Motherland” is an epic account. In fact, it tells three stories, set in Russia, Paris and Australia, intricately crafted together. There is the intriguing chronicle of the marriage between Russian Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky and Brisbane heiress Nell Tritton (Kerith Anderson) who lived in exile in our city of ‘Jacaranda eyes.’ There is also the story of poet Nina Berberova (Barbara Lowing) a Russian exile in 1930s Paris and Nell’s lover. And finally, bookending the play is the story of Alyona (Rebecca Riggs), fleeing to Brisbane from 1990s Motherland Russia with her son and her Australian boyfriend, only to be see him caught up in the Fitzgerald enquiry. This all initially makes for audience challenges to comprehend the multiple roles of Peter Cossar and Daniel Murphy. However, once the interconnection of the stories is established, this confusion is diminished, allowing full immersion in what is a captivating narrative.
Cultural issues don’t get much bigger than revolution, yet as what is essentially the tale of three women, the story is about much more than this. It is also shares very personal stories in examination of how historical events can shape relationships and identity and, as such, it is emotional, moving and gripping. This is due largely to the talent of Australian playwright, Katherine Lyall-Watson and it is no surprise to read that the work was shortlisted for the prestigious 2013 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award.
Staging is effective in its simplicity with a just a white doilyesque spray upon the ground and asymmetrical white frames in which characters are often frozen, much like their stories in time. Indeed, the minimalist black and white aesthetic helps in creating a work that is both enigmatic and sophisticated, and enhances the show’s appeal. It was wonderful to experience the show’s world premiere run as part of Metro Arts’ Season of the Independents. “Motherland” is a story of fascination and a moving theatrical work which showcases the strength of both Australia’s stories and Australia’s talent.