Cold Light. By Alana Valentine. Adapted from the novel by Frank Moorhouse. Directed by Caroline Stacey. The Street Theatre. Until March 18.. Bookings 6247 1223 or thestreet.org.au.
Cold Light is made of epic and intriguing stuff. Alana Valentine's adaptation of the last novel of Frank Moorhouse's Edith Trilogy cannot contain all but certainly captures something of its view of Australian post-war politics and society. And with 1950s and '60s Canberra at its centre there are many with whom it will resonate.
To this Canberra comes Edith Campbell Berry (played by Sonia Todd) and her sexually ambiguous husband Ambrose Westwood (Tobias Cole). He is attached to the British high commission and may have espionage connections.
Her brother Fred (Craig Alexander) turns up and turns out to be a Communist. Political differences do not, however, stop them renewing and maintaining some kind of family connection. There's real humour in their belated joint visit to their parents' country graves, complete with an attempted rerun of the eulogies by the local mayor (Nick Byrne). It is clear that Edith and Fred had parents who, like them, chased after causes, regardless of consequences.
She is hoping to become the first Australian woman diplomat, given her experience with the now defunct League of Nations. Instead she finds herself helping to develop the vision of Canberra. It is not until Gough Whitlam (Byrne) comes to power that she is given the international work she wants.
But Edith's idealism and integrity may end up being no defence against the Cold War and the machinations of politics and sex and betrayal.
Caroline Stacey's production of this long yet occasionally affecting play is stylish and not without humour. Maria T. Reginato's set has perhaps too many odd levels and steps for the action to negotiate smoothly yet at times it beautifully soaks up the projected original designs for Canberra and reminds us of their essential idealism. Imogen Keen's costume designs evoke the '50s and '60s with gorgeousness.
Sonia Todd makes an elegant, independent and principled Edith. Cole is surprisingly a little subdued as Ambrose and his drag-dancing turns could use more shaping for impact, but there's an edge of the sinister in this husband whom Edith will move on from. Gerard Carroll 's Richard, her next husband, is a briskly seductive widower with two children who supplies an experience of family that she has lacked.
Byrne gets to play Menzies and Whitlam but is at his most forceful as the predatory Scraper. The adaptation cuts much of the character of Fred's longtime lover and fellow Communist Janice, but Kiki Skountzos brings strength to what is left of the role and also to the pragmatic Amelia, the German who more than gets by in post-war Australia by pretending to be a Dane.
Like any new play there's some running-in to do. Poetry and song are used to evoke time and place with mixed success. The repeated use of Adam Lindsay Gordon's The Rhyme of Joyous Garde lacks theatrical force, however much it might be about the betrayal of ideals. Whereas when It's Time is sung here it's instant Whitlam. And Sweet Violets, laced with the ironies of double entendre, surprisingly brought the 1950s thundering back.
Running in or not, though, there's certainly an audience for Cold Light among those who like Moorhouse's Edith novels.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.