Theatre

STC’s production of Patrick White’s darkly comic A Cheery Soul shows that the story of ‘monstrous’ nursing home resident Miss Docker is a still-relevant examination of the loss of agency in old age.

By Steve Dow.

STC’s A Cheery Soul

Shari Sebbens (left) and Sarah Peirse in STC’s ’A Cheery Soul‘.
Credit: Daniel Boud

Long before he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1973 for an “epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature”, novelist Patrick White tried to divert Australian theatre from its naturalistic path into something more surreal.

His first play, The Ham Funeral, written in 1947, was based on an incident painted by William Dobell, whose landlord had died. Both vaudevillian and Gothic, the play would remain unperformed until 1961, in part because as the late Sydney Morning Herald theatre critic Harry Kippax put it, “the theatre was ready for it neither in England nor Australia”.

White was ahead of his time, as well as conservative tastes in Australia that focused on simpler entertainment and looked to Britain for dramatic licence. Absurdists such as Brecht, Ionesco and Beckett would not make their British stage debuts until the mid 1950s, hence Australian producers who read The Ham Funeral “received it at the best with caution amounting to inertia”, wrote Kippax.

Not even White’s novel The Tree of Man becoming internationally famous in 1955 could change the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s neglect of The Ham Funeral. Yet White’s theatrical ambition still flickered. It was set alight when, in April 1961, the Adelaide Festival of the Arts famously considered but ultimately rejected The Ham Funeral for a production: “unappetising fare”, wrote two businessmen railing at the play’s abstract elements in one of two reports commissioned by the festival board. 

The University of Adelaide Theatre Guild picked up the play and staged it the following November, to critical acclaim. White’s career on stage finally having begun, according to Kippax the rejection of Australia’s art taste-makers in Adelaide prompted White “at speed and at first in temper” to pen three more plays in quick succession: The Season at Sarsaparilla in 1961, and then A Cheery Soul and Night on Bald Mountain, both in 1962.

The long delay before White’s suite of 1960s plays is to our benefit today. Having begun living with his partner Manoly Lascaris and tending goats and fowl on a small farm at Castle Hill, 30 kilometres north-west of Sydney, in 1948, White had put aside the disappointment surrounding his first play to write some of his best novels there: The Tree of Man would be followed by Voss (1957) and Riders in the Chariot (1961).

Castle Hill, meanwhile, would assume centre stage in his short stories and plays, transformed into the fictional town of Sarsaparilla, which became a site for situating White’s satirical, at times high-camp take on human shortcomings. Of the eight plays White would publish before his 1990 death, A Cheery Soul, which tells the tale of busybody Miss Docker unceremoniously sent to live in the Sundown Home for Old People in Sarsaparilla, was his favourite.

Coincidentally, Miss Docker’s “militant virtue” and sober cheerfulness offered a sort of female counterpart to the equally suffocating outback blokes in Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright, who strutted in all their beer-soaked, aggressive hospitality.

In a new production of A Cheery Soul, Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams has cast as Miss Docker New Zealand-born actor Sarah Peirse, whom Sarah Goodes recently directed to great effect in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children. Peirse’s Miss Docker is comically exasperating, pushing an audience’s patience to the edge, but pulls us back by eliciting our sympathies. There is sadness to this woman who must control everyone else in her orbit.

A Cheery Soul begins naturalistically enough, when Mrs Custance (Anita Hegh), who is in her late 40s and self-conscious about not having produced children, tells her husband Ted (Anthony Taufa) that she wants to invite Miss Docker, who has been turned out of her home, to come live in their little “glassed-in verandah room”. It’s an odd narrative beginning in what otherwise becomes a great play: how has Mrs Custance, who is subservient and timid around her husband, struck up the boldness to change their lives so dramatically, of her own volition?

For his part, Ted Custance, a man of few words, complains Miss Docker is a “ratbag”. We know from the moment Miss Docker appears, endlessly chatting, passing judgement on and rearranging the Custances’ domestic habits, that she’s not long for this couple’s world. The first act does not quite work in the production, with the performances a little overamped.

It’s when the play hits its second act, in the home populated by elderly women, that the fun begins, and a surreal, theatrical comic potential is fulfilled. The elderly women – two of whom are played by men, Jay James-Moody and Bruce Spence, fabulously bewigged and in drag – switch in and out of dialogue to join together in a chorus. “So ordinary, everyday,” they chime of their twilight plight. “It comes in with the morning tea. It goes out with the supper tray. It comes and goes as quick and light as you spill egg on the sheet.” 

Where White’s script instructions of 1962 suggest various rostra at the back of the stage for chorus members to stand on, Williams has more sophisticated live-camera techniques with which to take us out of the naturalism into the fantastic, employing visual effects that allude to the nostalgic movies of the ladies’ youth. Williams has employed live filming before, overusing it in Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer (2015) but judging it well in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Early on in A Cheery Soul, the use of cameras is occasionally distracting, but when the ladies of the Sundown Home take a car trip after a funeral reception, the cameras become a brilliant means of gauging close-up comical reactions.

I wondered what Patrick White would have made of some of the elderly women being played by men in drag. Then I remembered something the photographer William Yang had told me in an interview: in 1985, White asked to be photographed acting out a death scene as a female alter ego, Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray, from his book Memoirs of Many in One. White was photographed in bed at St Vincent’s Hospital, with archangels, icons and cats that Yang later collaged into the picture.

The problem was the spooky image didn’t look like an Alex. It looked like White. So Yang took new photographs of White, this time in drag: a scarf concealing his hair and wearing a cashmere shawl over a lace top. The resulting images were not campy drag, more a subtle playing with gender fluidity, which White intended to use as the book’s frontispiece. But the photos are filed away in the National Library collection and have never been seen at any Yang show. “His agent helped him change his mind,” Yang noted wryly.

Perhaps White, whose “high camp kind of crankiness”, Yang says, was “more of an act, a performance”, might have looked something like gangly Bruce Spence in drag. Drag in this production runs the risk of diverting us from the plight of Miss Docker, but somehow the belly laughs with James-Moody and Spence are more about awkward physical comedy rather than undermining what White has to say about elderly women’s lives.

When A Cheery Soul was first produced, directed by John Sumner for the Melbourne’s Union Theatre Repertory Company in late 1963, Nita Pannell debuted the Miss Docker role. The play “upset everybody who saw it”, complained White in a letter to Sumner. Writing in The Australian Jewish Herald that month, critic Avi Ezer suggested his fellow critics were banally sorting characters into categories of good or bad. He suggested A Cheery Soul was “not dreary”, thereby putting him out of step with his critic contemporaries; rather, the play was “savage and merciless – but dramatically exciting”.

Yet Avi Ezer’s response to what Miss Docker is meant to represent is instructive: she is a “banal, empty-headed pusillanimous spinster, barren emotionally and physically”, he writes, and “one of the most frightening women ever to appear in a modern play”. The play would go on to be considered an Australian classic. Robyn Nevin is best remembered in the central role, having first performed it in 1979 for Sydney Theatre Company, and most recently again in 2001, directed by Neil Armfield in a joint STC–Belvoir production.

In 2017, theatre director and academic Julian Meyrick, who saw A Cheery Soul as a beautifully constructed stage work, wrote in The Conversation that Miss Docker, with her “powerfully invasive charitable intent”, her doling out of help even where it is not requested, was “in short, a monster”. But I think this new production, its dark comedy emphasising the loneliness at the heart of these women who have lost their agency, gives us pause to examine what else Miss Docker stands for.

His heroine shunted away to a shabby retirement home with many of her contemporaries, White’s purpose here is surely an examination of how women of a certain age are treated, and how women who try to control the narrative are labelled difficult. I don’t see Miss Docker as a monster. Far from it. She is a personification of what we might become when our fellow travellers spot us but cross to the other side of the street, having no use for our company.

For STC, Peirse imbues the misunderstood Miss Docker with many layers – her bossiness and desire for control, her unstinting cheeriness and lusty desires, her sharp tongue for those who even mildly rebuke her for filling her lonely life with ceaseless chatter. The Australia we are seeing on stage may be a depiction of a nation of more than half a century ago, when the churches ruled society and small minds kept the assertive individual under control. But using some clever modern staging techniques to flesh out White’s surrealism, the production realises the author’s vision of an Australia ruled by the anxiety of fitting in and of fear – an observation that remains relevant today.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "White soul". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.