A Greek island is the perfect stage for myth making and when Hydra opened on a whitewashed stage at the Dunstan Playhouse last night, we witnessed an Australian myth in the making.
Hydra is a simple tale that yields numerous themes and conflicts, much like the way the simple set with its Greek steps, windows, and symmetry gives rise to a multitude of hues, moods, and shadows.
In Hydra, we are drawn into the “idyllic” world of Australian writers, Charmian Clift and George Johnston, as they establish community on the Greek island post World War Two.
At first, this tale is about their passionate relationship and their Bohemian mindset of diving deeply into a world of writing, ideas, and drinking. But, to borrow from Milan Kundera, we soon discover there is an unbearable lightness to their being.
They are both tormented and driven by the notion of distilling the enduring Australian myth. Amid the “debauchery”, there is a strong work ethic enveloping their world. They breathe and exhale each other’s ideas and then, as George’s tuberculosis worsens and his will finds great resolve, he starts typing what is to become an Australian literary masterpiece, My Brother Jack.
Charmian deftly covers her typewriter and devotes herself to the birthing process of her man’s landmark novel, as too many female partners have done before and still do today. We are glad she did, despite the discomfort of knowing this cost her a much greater share of Australia’s limelight to which she was destined. Is this the blessing, the cost, and the gift of motherhood? Or is this, as writer Sue Smith suggests, another example of how the woman’s work or career or ambitions tend, even now in the contemporary women, post-feminism and everything else, to play second banana to the men’s?
The play opens as our narrator, George and Charmian’s eldest son, Martin, introduces his parents and their life to us.
Against the bleak, bleached walls, Martin observes the unfolding tale, while remaining a small figure against the towering characters and quests of his parents. Once more, the drive for the great literary work subsumes yet another aspect of their relationship; the role of parenting. While Charmian’s character does reach for her children, George’s is too focussed on his Icarian goal and sweeps all the delicate aspects of relationship away as he soars towards his Sun.
And then, as these characters embrace and endure passion and jealousy and despair (living in near poverty as artists), we note how the story we have just witnessed transforms through its remembering and its retelling, becoming more richly coloured and nuanced. The symbol of the rowing boat is a case in point. George procures it as a vessel for enabling his family to experience his familial tradition of being on the water and fishing, but it is given scant treatment amid the stormy demands of writing. Later, however, Martin’s memories of the boat are more lavish and tender. In 2019, ensconced in more suburban drives amid a social media world, this story asks, how many children today are existing on the edges of busy parents’ lives and how many of their childhood memories will need rose-coloured glasses to provide succour and peace?
This engrossing and cautionary tale is impressive theatre. It begs us to reflect on our drives and our “presence” with those around us. It is destined to endure.
The cast holds our focus and brings these characters to life, ably aided by some striking set and lighting design. The radiant array of “stages” enabled by this elemental set always supports the storytelling, and the sound and music lap against these gods gently and persistently enough to hold our players buoyantly for this sublime recreation of George and Charmian’s Hydra.