Murder and madness, Mayne style

The Mayne Effect (Flowers Theatre Company)

Harris Terrace

May 7 – 24

First and foremost, theatre is about storytelling. And you don’t get stories any more intriguing than the infamous tale of the ‘Butcher of Brisbane’ Patrick Mayne and his family’s contribution to the story and shaping of the city and surrounds.

Allegedly, Mayne made a deathbed confession to the savage murder of a man at Kangaroo Point in 1848 in order to steal an equivalent of a year’s wages (although another man had been trialled, convicted and hanged for the crime 17 years earlier). With this alleged blood money, Mayne went on to become successful businessman after purchase of a butcher’s shop in Queen Street, one of Brisbane’s wealthiest men (his 1865 funeral was the largest in the city to that date) and Alderman on the city’s first municipal council.

But what of his five children left as beneficiaries of the Mayne inheritance? And how were they affected by the apparent madness’ that afflicted him? This is the question at the core of Flowers Theatre Company’s new work “The Mayne Effect.” And it is a focus as fascinating now as it was when the malicious Mayne gossip was fresh.

History tells us that the Mayne children were advised not to have families of their own for fear of passing on their father’s sickness. Three went on to struggle with mental illness and despite generous philanthropy they were all largely shunned by the community. So their story is set with all the dramatic ingredients for a scandalous 19th century soap opera.

While it takes a little time to adjust to the non-linear chronology of the show’s scenes, once characters and relationships are established the audience the result is quite enthralling. The period drama is brought to life by a superb cast that features a number of flawless performances. Paul Harper-Green has every mark of Patrick Mayne in his portrayal of an angry brute of a man who could easily be provoked to violence.  As youngest son James, who would eventually become Resident Medical Officer at Brisbane General Hospital, then Medical Superintendent, Marshall Stay provides an appropriately measured voice of reason.

JAames

Kyle Barrett weaves his own subtle magic as the soft-spoken Will and, as the excitable, childlike but ultimately endearing Mary Emelia, Raechyl French offers a lively exhibition of responsive acting, making the most of every moment. But it is within the madness that the most deserving accolades lie. Nicholas Ryan is simply outstanding as the volatile and impulsive Isaac, soon to suffer complete breakdown and be banished to a Sydney mental asylum.

Isaac

Each character is given human depth and complexity that stops any quick judgement and assists in communicating the tension of the show. The youthful energy of the cast also effectively echoes the intimacy of their characters’ family bond, perfectly encapsulating both sibling banter and care, transforming the historical story into a more tangible and personal experience for the audience.

One of the most memorable characters, however, is the show’s Georgian, heritage-listed Harris Terrace location (so named after its original 1866 owner, local politician George Harris) which is acting as the Mayne’s Moorlands family home. As the performance processes, the audience follows the action from room to room as it unfolds, observing and sometimes eavesdropping on the troubled family’s drama. The setting is incredibly provocative with previous century sensibilities that help establish the atmosphere of the play, particularly the eeriness of Patrick Mayne’s deathbed demise. And his staircase trial, as audience members gather around as stairwell observers, is a real highlight.

Deathbed

Many Brisbanites in particular will be familiar with Rosamond Siemon’s popular book “The Mayne Inheritance” (appropriately published by UQ press) and also the play of the same name, which was first performed at La Boite Theatre in 2004. Yet little is known beyond this. Perhaps it is because I am not originally from Brisbane, but before this book and play, as someone who has received undergrad and post-grad degrees from the University of Queensland, I, for one, had no idea that Patrick’s children were the largest benefactors in building its prestigious and picturesque St Lucia Campus or had willed the income from their estates to its medical school. How unfortunate that delays in commencing construction meant that James and Mary Emilia never saw their dream fulfilled and that it was so long before Mayne Hall was opened in 1972 in honour of the State’s biggest benefactors.

The Mayne story is certainly a remarkable one that shows that sometimes an evil act can have good consequences. With themes of murder, intrigue and redemption, it is sure to divide opinion. Cleverly, “The Mayne Effect” plays upon this with the twist of splitting the audience group (and pairs of theatregoers) to watch one of two different first and final acts. Although everyone ultimately sees the same two scenes, opinion as to Papa Patrick’s guilt and destructive legacy becomes dependent upon which you saw first and last. And the resulting divided opinion and discussion is quite fascinating given that the opinion is influenced simply from seeing different scenes at different times in a narrative that is already non-linear.

Although it uses some artistic licence in order to explore what could have happened, considering concepts not in the previous texts, “The Mayne Effect” encourages the audience to reflect not only on the legitimacy of Mayne’s alleged confession, but also the nature of forgiveness (and if it can be bought). The Mayne story is a fascinating one and “The Mayne Effect” does an expert job in again bringing it to Brisbane audiences who are clearly eager to experience more of the city’s stories (judging by how quickly the show sold out ahead of its season) and perhaps even to see increased credit for this tainted family’s acts of benevolence to Brisbane.

You can also follow my Anywhere Theatre Festival reviews c/o the Festival website.

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