Super Girl sensitivity

Sunshine Super Girl (Performing Lines)

QPAC, Playhouse Theatre

September 22 – 24

There was a large group of school students in the audience at Opening Night of Brisbane Festival’s Sunshine Super Girl. Clearly unfamiliar with the details of its content, their investment in its story of Wiradjuri tennis legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley AC MBE was such that the genuineness of their reactions to its unfolding were apparent to everyone around. It was wonderful to see, leading to ponder about why there is no film retelling of the tennis champ’s extraordinary tale, given how her sporting prowess as one of the world’s leading players in the 1970s and early 1980s inspired a nation and paved the way for future generations of Indigenous sportspeople (including Ash Barty, who cites her as a key influence and mentor).

Created from interviews with Goolagong Cawley, who was very much part of the play’s development, the fascinating work tells the story of the first Indigenous woman to win a tennis Grand Slam, the first mum in 66 tears to win at Wimbledon and a player whose formidable blend of offensive and defensive play saw her defeat other greats like Margaret Court and Billie-Jean King. The show’s biopic structure takes us on journey of the living legend’s career from small town tennis prodigy to iconic seven-time singles grand slam tournament winner (she also won six in women’s doubles and one in mixed doubles), beginning serendipitously with discovery of the previous owner’s tennis ball in her father’s broken-down-again car. From her humble origins as the third of eight children, whose first tennis outfit was made out of a bedsheet, we see the heart-warming support of her local community to get her to a Sydney tennis school after being scouted in Barellan, however, it is a story that is steeped in poverty, adversity, and racism.

Ella Ferris is magnetic as Evonne, asking ‘why me’? She is immediately endearing as she takes us in to the energetic and innocent world of seven-year-old Evonne, in excitement at the simple joy of discovery, such as when using a tennis racket instead of a wooden bat for the first time. She also captures her contemplative connection to country, as things open to Evonne breathing in the Murrumbidgee, and is charismatic even when taking us through career injuries and illnesses.

The supporting cast includes Katina Olsen, Jacqueline Compton, Lincoln Elliott, Kirk Page and Sermsah Bin Saad who work together to vividly create a range of characters in aid of the storytelling, including amusing John Newcombe and Martina Navratilova caractures (both from Compton) and even sheep to be shawn by Evonne’s father. Their dynamic physical performances work well with the play’s unique staging to enhance its engagement (set and costume design by Romanie Harper).

Atmosphere is created by transformation of QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre to a tennis court, complete with tiered on-stage ‘courtside’ audience seating facing out into the auditorium. Movement upon the court is used as a language with live and mimed ball play action as the sport is imaginatively represented in dance and movement (choreography by Katina Olsen and Vicki Van Hout). A standout scene comes when tennis postures are physically deconstructed in terms of body positioning in its return of a ball represented by a performer. The precision of its realisation is not only quite beautiful in and of itself, but coveys the consideration given to all aspects of the production.

The anecdotal quality to Andrea James’s writing warms us into the story’s sensitivities and the playwright’s love of the game is evident. Under her direction, the tribute is skilfully told to balance Goolagong Cawley’s ultimately triumphant story with its inherent poilticalness, because even though the tennis great thought of herself as apolitically just a tennis player, even this was a political positioning given the pressure of representation. Indeed, her achievements are made all the more impressive when we are reminded of the racism and sexism she showed strength to rise above, through reference to the social and political climate of the time and feature of 1962’s Commonwealth Electoral Act, the 1965 Freedom Rides, the establishment of the tent embassy in Canberra and South African apartheid. The balance this gives to the storytelling ensures that the powerful true tale ultimately serves as a celebration of sprit and passion over adversity, albeit with a distinctively Australian sensibility that makes it an entertaining 95-minute game, set and match.  

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