All My Love (HIT Productions)
The Arts Centre Gold Coast
September 16 – 19
Like that of most nations, Australia’s history is filled with interesting stories. Our literary history has its heroes and right up there at the apex is the larger-than-life writer and poet, Henry Lawson. But what of his love, radical socialist and literary icon Mary Gilmore, who ironically replaced him when our ten dollar note moved from paper to polymer. Surely theirs must have been fascinating relationship. This is the assumption realised in the sensitive new Australian work “All My Love”, which brings to life their little known passionate love affair on the professional stage for the first time.
From the outset it is clear the work is intent on preserving the original sensibilities of its subject matter, with period furniture setting the scene in the intimate space. Tanned in tone and warmed by dim and cozy lighting, it languishes in a Tennessee Williams type way, as well a memory play should. More sentimental than realistic, it takes audiences along an evocative journey of the duo’s relationship, through Mary’s narration inset with action and correspondence, in a “Love Letters” type way (including excerpts from the couple’s surviving letters).
Memorable days sometimes occur during miserable weather, she observes in introduction. And for Henry and Mary, their memorable day of meeting comes as arranged by their journalist mothers. As they walk and talk through a courtship, their topics of politics and feminism are illustrated by use of projection of the images of their observations. More equal than muse, she reads his work, correcting his spelling and commending his writing and he transitions from poetry to prose and soon solidifies a voice beyond just the anti-bush sentiment for which he is remembered in contrast to our other literary greats. But as circumstances conspire against them, most obviously as consequence of the motherly interference of the unseen but ever-domineering formidable feminist Louisa Lawson, Henry descends into drunkenness and the two, although they remain as friends, never see their secret engagement realised.
“Writers sometimes make poor pen friends,” Henry comments in response to their lapsed correspondence upon marriages to others (both outlived by their essential connection). Yet it is the writing of “All My Love” that is one of its most notable features. Its title cleverly come from the typical closing from Henry’s letters to Mary and its dialogue reflects the intellect and descriptive articulacy of the two as writers both ahead of their time, while also remaining engaging through its infusion of sly humour and, particularly, in Act Two, eloquent inclusion of Lawson’s real-life words within his declarations.
At its core, however, this is a story about the people beyond their written words. And particularly for a country whose premier annual literary prize emerged from the bequest of Australian writer and feminist, Miles Franklin, it is sad that so little is widely known of Gilmore. Indeed, one of the production’s many strengths is it presentation of the potentially larger-than-life literary characters as real, identifiable people within a fateful relationship. And thanks to some stellar performances, it is in a way that audiences will never forget.
Dion Mills brings an essential humanity to the stern but somewhat insecure figure of Lawson, even in his brutally honest declarations about needs of a man. And he transitions from giddily in want to introspective and then intoxicated with ease. As Gilmore, Kim Denham shows an enduring strength of character befitting a good woman of that certain time. And, combined their talent engages the audience along on an emotional journey from smiles in empathy at their awkward attempts at declarations to tears of despair in realisation that there are no lessons to be learned and that this is perhaps just the story of lives that could have been written so differently had their love not be lost so tragically. This combines with simple shifts in costumes to show the passing of time and versatile staging that see set segments reimagined as, for example, a cruise ship and gaol cell, to create an outstanding theatrical experience of the type of greatness that sneaks up on you, resulting in shared post-show audience comments like “it was fabulous” and “I love it” from all around.
The rule never really changes. If you want a great show it’s: story story story. While more focussed on sentiment than historical re-enactment, “All My Love” is certainly a fascinating story of an Australia people will recognise and should want to see realised on our stages. The gentle production presents not only a remarkable tale but enduing themes that can make you only but wonder what the landscape will be like in a future world in which the permanency of heartfelt handwritten correspondence will be but a distant memory.