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Somewhere South

Somewhere South
Writer: Geoffrey Sykes
Director: Geoffrey Sykes
Chippen Street Theatre
November 3 – 12, 2022

A century ago, the groundbreaking English writer D. H. Lawrence visited Australia for a brief 12 weeks, writing the novel Kangaroo set in Sydney and Thirroul. Writer and director Geoffrey Sykes has drawn on the novel to create Somewhere South in which he explores Lawrence’s complex and shifting responses to a raw society and to the ancient Australian landscape.

Sykes is deeply interested in Lawrence (Shaun Foley) as writer and explores this aspect through the introduction of a Muse and Narrator (Katrina Maskell) who appears at intervals throughout the play. She reflects the seductive beauty of the landscape as well as its darkness through powerful descriptions taken from Kangaroo, and her darting, flickering movements chart Lawrence’s search for a new “post-human” epoch. While an interesting device, its whimsical presentation is sometimes distracting rather than supportive of the director’s vision.

Underlining Sykes interest in Lawrence’s craft is the introduction of American literary influencer, Ezra Pound (Dominic Collier). Emerging from Lawrence’s memory with his advice about “direct writing” and economy of words, dressed to catch attention, patronising and snobbish, nevertheless a man with a mission to “modernise” literature. Collier, a physically imposing man, plays several roles in the play, reflecting Lawrence’s sense of his own fragility.

The play’s action opens with the arrival of Lawrence and his German wife Frieda (Mel Day) in Thirroul, suitcases in hand. She is unimpressed while he is ready to be open to this bush “town” as a new invigorating experience. Gradually their responses are reversed, and Frieda is keen to stay as she “likes walking by the sea, picking flowers and talking to her Australian neighbours” and Lawrence is impatient to leave once he discovers that the “relief from pressure” offered by Australia is mythical. While Lawrence does not lose his fascination for the land, other factors intervene to disillusion him of the hope that Australia offered the possibility of a fresh start.

While at first Lawrence is drawn to his neighbour Jack (Collier), to the socialist Struthers (Collier) and to the charismatic but fascist Kangaroo (Collier), leader of the Digger movement, by their confident manliness, he finds that their answers to reshaping a new world are shallow versions of old and failed solutions of the Europe he and Frieda have fled. Foley gives the difficult character of Lawrence its full complexity in his relationship with the three men as they to use him to enhance their own value and then bully him when he resists.

As Frieda, Mel Day gives a convincing portrait of a loving partner accustomed to Lawrence’s ill-temper and contradictoriness and supportive of his writing. While she travels in the wake of Lawrence at the same time she can be firm in expressing her disagreement with his pronouncements. Jack’s wife, Victoria, (also Maskell) whom Frieda befriends, is fascinated by Lawrence’s passionate intellectualism but despite her sexual overtness she is subject to her husband in a way Frieda is not subjugated to Lawrence.

Somewhere South is a thought-provoking play and inspires a timely re-reading of Kangaroo, but there are one or two glitches. While the works of Gary Shead expressing the artist’s personal response to the novel and commemorating Lawrence’s association with Thirroul are relevant as another layer of narration their projection onto a white curtain made them lack clarity.

While Sykes seems to accept the view that Kangaroo, as claimed by Lawrence’s alter ego, Richard Somers in the novel, was a “pot-boiler” maybe it is time to revise this view. Lawrence wrote of “the strange and invisible beauty of Australia” as something beyond his grasp and in that observation touched upon the falsity of the image of a white colony squatting on the coast. Lawrence noted the “the dark, old, aboriginal rocks” on the escarpment, and responded to the land as having an active, abiding Presence.

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