WHEN a young boy named James died at an English workhouse-orphanage in 1791, one of his fellow inmates stole his clothes, assumed his identity and escaped. The thief was a girl; cutting off her hair and pretending to be a boy gave her some protection in a world dominated by men, but she was caught stealing a horse and sent to Sydney Cove, which was so far away and so frighteningly alien it might have been hell.
Today that girl, Mary Reibey, proudly graces our $20 note. Singer Katie Noonan does not appear on legal tender, but she is probably far better known than Reibey, whose life, once she reached Australia, took some extraordinary turns. Reibey went from being a convict to one of the country's most successful people when, on her husband's death, she inherited his many prosperous business interests. Affluent, respected, clever and enterprising, she owned property and was a governor of Sydney's first free grammar school. And she did most of it while she was a widowed working mother of seven children.
''She must be the quintessential Australian feminist,'' says Noonan, whose song Mary - written from the transportee's perspective - includes the line: ''And though grief has scarred my life, I stand strong.''
This highly acclaimed singer-songwriter has been researching Reibey's life, and the lives of many other female transportees, for her latest project. From a woman who always offers surprises, it's a venture in which she once more tantalises us with her creative scope. In concert with Circa, the ground-breaking Brisbane-based circus troupe - they have no animals, no costumes, no props and an abundance of raw physical talent - Noonan's new show is a serenade to the women who came to this country as convicts.
Noonan is not one to just sing, play an instrument, inhabit a cosy niche or play with one style. Nor is she the sort of artist whose work is only about the performance: the depth of research she has done for this project is extraordinary; it's much more than just a quick run through Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore. Even Noonan's published notes for Love-Song-Circus, which audiences will receive, list her scholarly references, including Grace Karskens' The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, Susanna de Vries' Females on the Fatal Shore and Deborah Swiss' The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia's Convict Women.
While reading, doing fieldwork and fossicking through libraries - she spent much time reading letters at Canberra's National Library and contemplating life at the infamous Cascades Female Factory in Tasmania - Noonan was told by an academic friend doing a PhD that it was all going to amount to ''phenomenological research''. Noonan was, in a sense, inhabiting her subjects, trying to get into their minds to see life as they might have done.
''I tried to get into their world,'' she says. ''These women were so strong - and when I think of strong women nowadays I think of circus women, so I thought it would be beautiful to have a physical depiction of these women and the sisterhood. These women really looked after each other because they had to - the ratio [women to men] was nine to one; a lot of tough stuff going on.''
She went to Yaron Lifschitz, the director of Circa, and they combined their talents. Long before this, though, Noonan's impetus had been engaged by learning about 307 convict tokens kept at the National Museum of Australia. Many of the tokens, made of soft metal between 1762 and 1856, were inscribed - a criminal offence - by convicts with messages and images for their loved ones in Britain.
''They were writing back to husbands and lovers and children; it was a snapshot into the hearts of people,'' she says. ''It really got me … Being a mother and a woman, I thought I would love to explore this from a female point of view because it is usually unexplored.''
Noonan had expected to be heading towards a show about love, lust and longing, but she soon discovered some of the stories were deeper and sadder than she had anticipated. She was deeply affected by the tales of women who had been separated from their children. During the transportation era, a child was considered legally independent after the age of seven, so women with children that age or older frequently could not take them to Australia.
''The common scenario was a woman stealing bread to feed her child, then being sent away from them to the other side of the world,'' Noonan says. ''That profound grief and loss … it is unimaginable and cruel.''
Noonan does her utmost, though, to imagine and inhabit it in this cycle of songs, which she sings (also playing her piano with a string quartet and other musicians) with immense feeling. Three Circa performers - all women - echo those emotions with their astonishingly expressive movements. ''It is intimate,'' Noonan says, ''and hopefully it will let the audience feel like they really know those [convict] women.''
While this singer is used to performing as herself, expressing her own views and feelings in her songwriting, here she is in another guise. ''With this, I am not in character but I am singing from the women's perspective: I am Ellen in one, Janet in another, Esther in another one,'' she says. ''I let their words speak for themselves.''
In Ellen, for instance, Noonan gives us a distinct sense of Ellen Scott, the feisty leader of a
19th-century flash mob at the Cascades Female Factory, who spent 30 days in solitary confinement in a tiny windowless cell after organising all the factory women to bare their backsides at the pastor who was infamous for his pious sermons - and his molestation of the inmates.
''So just what makes you think you're so holy/Does your wife know you're horny as hell?/ Compared with you, I'm a saint, so while in this pew/I bare my arse and say, 'Stuff you.'''
While there is some humour and lightness in this, the sadness, courage and fortitude underlying it is potent. As Noonan emphasises, so many women's stories from this era have been overlooked, forgotten or ignored. In reviving their experiences and emotions, she acknowledges their suffering and reinforces the meaning of their difficult, heartbreaking lives. As she sings in Space between Us, dedicated to those women transported - usually forever - away from their children, some of the events they endured must have been unimaginably painful. Especially the last moments together between parent and child:
''Precious time, holding now/ Precious fingers, holding on for life/Whisper to me while I hold you/ Heartbeat pounding, pulsing life around.''
Noonan honours that grief with some beauty and life.
■ Love-Song-Circus is at the Famous Spiegeltent from March 19-24. spiegel.artscentremelbourne.com.au. Katie Noonan can also be seen in conversation at the Arts Centre Melbourne on March 16.