Letters to Lindy
Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre
August 1 – 4
In its use of the words of real people, verbatim theatre is often a captivating experience in and of itself, however, in the case of “Letters to Lindy” this is especially so. Although it is now almost 40 years since Lindy Chamberlain was accused of killing her nine-week-old daughter Azaria while camping with her husband and other children at Uluru (then known as Ayers Rock), despite the assertion that a dingo had taken the baby from their tent, the nation-dividing case continues to serve as a source of fascination.
The legacy of interest is apparent by the show’s run in the largest of the Powerhouse Theatre spaces which is full of audience members of a certain age and over who find it difficult to comprehend that there are those in their youth who are unfamiliar with the case about which everyone has an opinion. The makers of the transcript based drama obviously assume so too as there is no background information given in contextualisation. Rather, the audience is thrust straight into the story, which begins with words of vitriol from self-proclaimed angry ‘ordinary people’, which an older Lindy (Jeanette Cronin) now regards as comic relief.
The words have been drawn from an archive of 30 000 catalogued letters, now held by the National Library in Canberra and join only two fictional scenes to form the 2+ hour long experience during which we are taken back to the Ayers Rock campsite described in witness statements and through 18 months of two coronial inquests that resulted in Chamberlain being jailed for life for murdering her baby daughter until Azaria’s missing matinee jacket was found in Uluru in support of her defense case and The Chamberlains were granted a pardon.
Unarguably, Chamberlain is one of 20th Century Australia’s most iconic figures. And although many of the show’s words come from others, this is her story (not that of her husband Michael or their children, who barely appear). On opening night this is enhanced by an additional, riveting act of sorts in the form of a Q&A with the theatre makers and Lindy herself, which makes the show’s experience an even more moving tribute to resilience. In role on stage, Cronin encapsulates the strength of character that we see from the real-life Lindy, delivering a number of passionate monologues, in response, for example to criticism around her stony-faced, matter-of-fact demeanour.
The three other cast members Glenn Hazeldine, Phillip Hinton, and Jane Phegan support this in multiple roles, easily jumping in and out of the different ages and genders of letter writers. Particularly, Hazeldine, gives a memorable performance enacting the words of children (because just like their tones, the ages of letter-writers are diverse).
Darren Yap’s detailed direction means that on-stage busyness is effectively choreographed as boxes of letters are moved around while household duties are attended to. Staging is meticulous down to the side-table photo appearance of the now-iconic image of a red jacketed Lindy looking down on Azaria in her arms and era-evocative outfits and wigs signify changes in Lindy’s life stages. A subtle soundtrack also adds atmospheric sounds of nature to accompany the testimony and enactment of Victorian tourist Wally Goodwin’s discovery of Azaria’s clothing a week after her disappearance.
Despite its touch on the many myths of the infamous Azaria case, one of the most amazing things about “Letters to Lindy” is its chronicle of everything that Chamberlain-Creighton received, whether the messages be of support, regret or vile damnation. The immensity of the source material means there is much content with which to shape into a show. Act One takes us up to her life imprisonment (in reality a four-year stint) in the Northern Territory’s Berrimah Prison, but of course there is so much more and as multi-award winning playwright Alana Valentines takes audiences along the journey to the 2012 coronial ruling that finally ended the legal saga, there is much back and forthing in audience responses as we are reminded of the jokes, gossip and accusations of occultism that fuelled the fire of its multiple inquests and intense media scrutiny. Indeed, interval affords a welcome opportunity for audience discussion about an event that divided this country like only conscription and Whitlam before it.
“Letters to Lindy” is not necessarily a show to rave about, but it is a very interesting one. While light may never fill the corners of the case’s mystery, in its capture of the story’s emotion, the show illustrates how the tale has moved beyond this now that the memory of Azaria has been finally, fully returned to her family after a fourth colonial inquest officially recorded that her death was “as a result of being attacked and taken by a dingo”.