Printable CopyHYDRA
The State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse
Until 19 May 2019

Review by Sarah Westgarth

The desire to create a great and definitive work of art is one that can be regarded as either the noblest of pursuits, or a foolish waste of idle time. The end result can become the pinnacle of one’s life, or the complete destruction of it. These ideas are not always mutually exclusive. Sue Smith’s new play explores what it means to live a creative life through the work of Charmian Clift and George Johnston—Johnston being best known for his Miles Franklin Award-winning novel “My Brother Jack”. Clift and Johnston were writers, collaborators and lovers when they moved to the small Greek island of Hydra in 1956, each with the dream to be the author of something significant. In their pursuit of this their security, health and relationships are often cast aside. In this astonishing play, director Sam Strong focuses on the sacrificial path to following your heart, putting the complex dynamics between the characters front and centre. The end result is a fascinating portrayal of tortured talent, as well as sharing a story of Australian literature and art that deserves to be told.

While generally following a linear structure, ‘Hydra’ never feels entirely grounded in reality. The story of Charmian and George’s relationship and careers—often indistinguishable from one another—is told through the memories of their adult son Martin, played by Nathan O’Keefe. As a result, the style of the play takes on a heightened, exaggerated tone as we drift in and out of the narrative of Charmian and George’s time on the island. We see their early excitement about what might lie ahead, their desperate years living in poverty and desperation, and how things shift when success finally comes. The story is episodic in nature, with no blackouts or pauses between the scenes as they pass by on an exquisite blank canvas of a set designed by Vilma Mattila, lit to beautiful effect by Nigel Levings. There are no small or insignificant moments here; mimicking the fervour of the central characters, everything is portrayed as larger than life and deeply intense. While at times this can be a little overwhelming, it serves to highlight the extremity with which these people lived their lives.

The small cast has excellent chemistry, and operate in precise sync with each other. Not a beat is missed. While sometimes the dialogue fires at such a rapid pace that clarity can become an issue, the energy is what really matters and, on that front, the ensemble never wavers. Bryan Probets is electrifying in his portrayal of George Johnston, capturing a unique balance of ardour and anguish. Anna McGahan as Charmian, the true emotional epicentre of the piece, gives a fearless performance that is raw and vulnerable, but also alludes to more going on beyond what we see. She is a self-aware, tragic figure, and the moments when she is alone on the stage, often reciting fragments of Clift’s writing, are the most haunting and evocative. Together, Probets and McGahan are a powerhouse of tortured chemistry, and are ably supported by O’Keefe, Hugh Parker, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight and Kevin Spink. The ensemble not only brings out the nuance in the most fraught of moments, but deftly balances the light-hearted humour in the piece too, of which there are a surprising number. Strong has his cast working together seamlessly. Not a moment is wasted as the audience is continually drawn deeper into the tumultuous world of the characters, feeling every success and every failure alongside them.

Charmian Clift and George Johnston are two deeply complex people who bring out both the worst and best in each other, and ‘Hydra’ gives us an unflinching look at the cost some people are willing to pay for success. Using Clift and Johnston’s own words, and a rich imagining of their lives together, Sam Strong and Sue Smith, along with their superb cast, have woven an intricate and powerful exploration of what happens when a dream turns to poison. Operating as both a celebration and a cautionary tale, ‘Hydra’ continues to linger in your mind long after you leave the theatre.