By Anthony Weigh. Melbourne Theatre Company. Southbank, The Sumner. 16 January – 18 February 2023

Sunday Reed (Nikki Shiels) stands alone in Anna Cordingley’s vast and empty set.  Stage left, a wall of impenetrable black; otherwise, walls covered with huge brushstrokes, and, high across the back, a rectangle of yellow and green – a particular motif for Australian art.  Sunday looks out over the vista down to the river at Heide, the legendary haven, sanctuary and home established in the 1930s by Sunday and John Reed (Matt Day) at Bulleen.  Sunday was the patron, supporter, muse and den mother for such artists as Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, and most crucially here, Sidney Nolan. 

The light, the colours, the trees and the river are all still beautiful to her after nearly thirty years of triumphs, failures, disruptions, passions, betrayals and disappointments.  She is joined by Sweeny (Josh Tighe) the now teenage son of artist Joy Hester who put art first and abandoned him to Sunday.  Their talk is cheerful, cheeky banter between a smart teenager and adoptive Mum.  The only dark note is a reference to some paintings that must be ‘sent back’…

But from here we swoop back a couple of decades to the arrival of Sidney Nolan (Josh McConville).  He is brusque, gauche, naïve.  Sunday sees straight through him – but sees talent.  Playwright Anthony Weigh makes the triangle – Sunday, her husband John Reed and Sidney Nolan – the focus of his play.  His intention is to deepen our understanding of Sunday and he strips much else away.  Sweeny gets that one scene.  Joy Hester (Ratidzo Mambo), a splendid artist in her own right, is glimpsed way upstage in a couple of scenes and then gets only one scene with Sunday, who is naked in a bath.  (Why?) They discuss the conflict between motherhood and being an artist; it’s the set-up for Hester to leave Sweeny there at Heidi with Sunday.  But the dominant impression given by the stage ‘business’, by its mise en scène, is that Joy Hester is Sunday’s maid.  It’s puzzling. 

Nevertheless, the play is about more than a love triangle; it’s powerfully about the relationship between artist and patron – a theme that particularly interests director Sarah Goodes.  Sunday is more than a helpmate and lover; she is critic and inspirer who nurtures Nolan and pushes him to break free and take Australian art in a new direction.  But when she refers to, say, the Ned Kelly series as ‘ours’ and Nolan insists that the paintings are his – every brush stroke – it’s embarrassing when she reminds him that she paid for the paint and the canvases. 

This play will divide audiences.  Those unfamiliar with the stories of Heide and its founders, will be, perhaps, intrigued by the vicissitudes of this brilliant, generous, challenging woman who refused to be constrained.  Others may be, quite possibly, rather bored by over-long, static dialogue scenes, wondering why they should care.  Then again the play will be a quite different experience for those who know, or think they know, the stories of Heide, of Sunday, John Reed and Sidney Nolan. Some may be dissatisfied at Anthony Weigh’s choices in his telling, but others again will appreciate the playwright’s imaginative filling in of the gaps, giving us, as he puts it, ‘things the biographers couldn’t tell’.  

Weigh describes the play in a program note as ‘a psychological tumult occurring in Sunday’s mind.  A cascade of truth, lies, rewards, punishments, memories and copious regret.’ So, if it’s not too conventional an expectation - we might see a series or a collage of key memories that haunt Sunday Reed – highly subjective, coloured memories, in a heightened reality – that in the end give us, not a biography, but a truer insight than ‘the facts’, a kind of psychological portrait.

But what we get here much of the time are a series of quasi-naturalistic scenes, with sophisticated dialogue exchanges, and in which Sunday is the winner – until she’s not.  We may strain to understand why some scenes have been included – that is, why such-and-such a scene is a key memory, or just why Sunday remembers it and not something else, and what does the scene illuminate.  Given that Weigh is not trying to ‘tell a story’ (although inevitably he does), what does the scene, for instance, under Princes Bridge reveal to us that we have not already inferred for ourselves?

The performances of the three principals, however, are excellent.  McConville never tries to make us like Nolan, ruthless, a user, the self-absorbed, the artist first and last.  Matt Day lifts John Reed well above victim or doormat.  John’s love for Sunday is palpable.  He’s a solicitor, not an artist, and he knows it, but he has – he has to – an ironic, dry wit.  In the rather Noel Coward-ish scene where he meets Sunday for the first time, he has a brilliant speech describing the incestuous nature of Melbourne’s ‘high society’ – and Day delivers it so well, he gets a round of applause.  It is Nikki Shiels, as the absolute centre, the subject, of the drama, who carries the burden of maintaining audience engagement with all the contradictions that is Sunday – highly intelligent, articulate, domineering, an exponent of ‘tough love’ – and free love - generous but rather aware of her generosity.  She refers several times to ‘what we’ve made here at Heidi’, but what was that?  Here, it’s an assertion, a justification without substance.  (We get a much better sense of it in Claire Jaeger’s film, The Good Looker about Hester.)

Of course, one’s response to and understanding of Sunday depends on one’s feeling that it’s too long and that therefore a tough edit of the text wouldn’t hurt.  Puzzling, again, is the choice to stage this very intimate psychological drama in the cavernous Sumner theatre and on that intimidatingly big set.  Sarah Goodes, usually unerringly brilliant with large, bare spaces, seems let down this time.  Might this play work far better in, say, a smaller venue - the Fairfax Studio say?

But then this play’s approach to its subject seems to me decidedly ambivalent.  Is Sunday the victim of the misogynist oppressions of her time?  If so, it’s not dramatised.  She can be as confrontational and iconoclastic, really, as she likes, protected by her rich family’s money, and her infinitely indulgent, enthralled husband.  She might be the rebel, opposed to conformity and tradition, but really, it doesn’t cost her much.  Yes, she nurtured, protected, inspired and funded some of Australia’s greatest painters, but what was her reward?  At the end of the play, in its most nakedly emotional and painful scene, she is reduced to a pathetic and deluded woman who forgot that great art is not made by patrons but by egotistical and ungrateful artists.

Michael Brindley   

Photographer: Pia Johnson

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