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At 31, Kendall Feaver continues her brilliant career with her new adaptation of Miles Franklin for Belvoir. “I’m wary of black-and-white thinking … I’m interested in the ‘why’. Why is this fracture happening? Why is this so divisive, so deeply felt and fought over?” By Peter Craven.

Playwright Kendall Feaver

Playwright Kendall Feaver.
Credit: Brett Boardman

The voice on the phone is like crystal. You can tell it’s a young voice – Kendall Feaver is only 31 – but it also sounds like someone who is at the height of her powers.

Her adaptation of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career kicks off at Belvoir this week with the remarkable Nikki Shiels in the role made famous by Judy Davis in Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 film. Feaver’s breakthrough happened in 2015, when she won a Judges Award in the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting – the largest playwriting competition in Europe – for The Almighty Sometimes.

It’s about a young woman afflicted with what gets called mental illness, her mother, her psychiatrist and her boyfriend; and it picked up a number of awards – as well as the Bruntwood Prize, it won the 2018 UK Theatre Award for Best New Play and, most recently, the 2019 NSW and Victorian premier’s prizes for drama. It was later performed at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in Feaver’s first professional production. Another play, Godmoney, is in development for that tiny jewel box of a London theatre, the Almeida, under its New Playwrights, Big Plays program.

Feaver is London-based and you can hear Britain in her voice. “I’m an Australian, though,” she says. “I was born in Richmond, Sydney, studied at Macquarie University” – this was before the master’s degree at Goldsmiths, University of London – “grew up in the Southern Highlands, went to a very Christian primary school, and a slightly less but still Christian high school.”

So a posh, private, co-ed school. “I think a pretty hefty scholarship made that one possible,” she says. “By the end of it, year 11 and 12, I shocked everyone by studying only humanities subjects, nothing but drama, art, history and English.”

Was there some formative figure, some super drama teacher, I wonder? “There was actually, I had the one teacher for most of my subjects, Paul Gardiner. We’re still in touch, and now, coincidentally, he lectures in and writes books on playwriting.”

She wrote her first plays at high school. “As any high-school teacher probably knows, there are almost no large-cast plays for young people to perform,” she says. “So I wrote a few for my classmates. But I have memories of attempting plays earlier than this, four or five [of them].

“The only theatre I knew was the once-a-year trip to Sydney to see the latest blockbuster musical – I think the first thing I saw was Jesus Christ Superstar, then the 1995 The Secret Garden, which thrilled me. Until I left high school, I thought that’s mostly what theatre was – big spectacles designed to thrill, to create a sense of wonder. As a miseducation, I actually think it served me well.”

I tell her I don’t want to be reductive or vulgarly personal about The Almighty Sometimes, and that I see it as, among other things, a play about how extremities of anguish are constructed as a condition and suffered as a predicament. But how much comes from her own experience?

“I don’t want to back away from the fact that there is a personal element in it,” Feaver says. “There is a personal element in everything I write. At the same time, there’s an enormous amount of craft and hard work: tracing the interconnection between four people, the different tussles and tugs of war they become involved in, linking that back to the global politics of overmedication, and in a way that could constitute a dramatic situation and be made into a play.”

You can hear the faint rustle of nervousness in her voice, her desire not to be misunderstood. “I do think there’s a bit of a tendency, particularly with women, to reduce a play to some sort of autobiographical thing,” she says.

I ask if I would know any of the actors who did the play in Manchester and she rattles off a list with quiet pride: Julie Hesmondhalgh from Broadchurch and Happy Valley; Mike Noble, who played the lead in the West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; Sharon Duncan-Brewster, set to star in the upcoming science-fiction epic Dune; and Norah Lopez Holden, a rising name of the British stage, who was nominated for various awards for her performance as Anna, the central character in The Almighty Sometimes.

“I originally wanted to be an actress,” Feaver says, with a sort of tentative brightness. “It wouldn’t have suited me because it’s such a desperately insecure profession. I mean, as a playwright it’s hard enough – and you want your plays put on – but no one can actually stop you from writing them. You don’t need to wait for permission.”

If she were an actor, what part would she have liked to have played? “Mother Courage,” she says, like a shot. “When I see Brecht I’m swept away by the colour and the feeling and the depth of the emotional connection.”

How does she feel when the actor takes over, does she see them as distorting her conception? “No, not at all,” she says. “When you write plays you have to allow for the fact that part of what you’re doing has to be completed, it has to be fulfilled by the actor. That’s fascinating and exciting and when it works it’s very satisfying.”

I mention that it’s funny for an Australian woman based in London to be adapting My Brilliant Career, because Franklin referred to her self-conscious colonialism as “cooeeing along the Strand”, and I ask what drew Feaver to the book.

“Well, I was struggling to access Australian theatre companies, and Lee Lewis [artistic director of Queensland Theatre] suggested that I pitch My Brilliant Career as a possible adaptation, thinking that the voice was very similar to my own,” Feaver says. “When I read it, I couldn’t believe it had been written in 1899 – it was so self-confident, brash, funny, it captured so accurately all this anger I’d been feeling at the act of biological sabotage involved sometimes in being a woman.

“And then I realised that the book itself had been literally repressed and censored. My Brilliant Career was edited by Henry Lawson and a Scottish publisher who removed what they called the more salacious elements. I don’t know what those are – we don’t actually have the original draft or proofs anymore.”

She began her adaptation by going to Franklin’s second book, My Career Goes Bung, which was written as a corrective to the first. “There I had more understanding of the uncensored Franklin, this famously contradictory and sometimes controversial woman – someone who’s constantly trying things out and testing the world she doesn’t necessarily know about but is hell-bent on discovering anyway.”

In Feaver’s My Brilliant Career you hear the histrionic voice of Franklin’s Sybylla, tearing a passion to tatters but, however much she improvises herself, monumentally self-possessed. The play sounds like Franklin, but the recognition is generalised. How much is Feaver and how much Franklin?

“Most of it is me,” Feaver says. “Every time I directly quoted the book, we found it was quite flat on the stage, so I’ve tried to inhabit that voice, honour her by writing within it.”

For the Belvoir production of My Brilliant Career she has at her disposal Nikki Shiels, whom I’ve rarely seen on stage without feeling the impact of the emotional reality she can conjure.

“Nikki is wonderful,” Feaver says. “I’m lucky to have her. She has such truth and such power as an actress.” I suggest that Judy Davis always seems to me to work on a principle of calculated excess, whereas Shiels is a quieter actor, attentive to shifts and silences. “Yes, but I think she has the thing Judy Davis has as well. You could give Nikki the back of a cereal box to read and she’d find some way to make it compelling.”

Feaver refuses to typecast herself as an introvert or an extrovert. “I think I’ve got a bit of balance between the two,” she says. “Though the extrovert part does mean writing alone at a desk is a bit more torturous than it needs to be.”

She’s had an extraordinary year having originally intended to go back and forth between Britain and Australia. “I’ve lived in every bit of Greater London. Most recently in Clapton, East London, but in fact everywhere,” she says. “Often in a makeshift way, you know, grubby share houses, and only until the roof caves in or the landlord sells up, whichever comes first.”

But the to-ing and fro-ing was not to be. She came to Australia in March because Griffin Theatre Company was planning a production of her play Wherever She Wanders
about rape culture on university campuses – which was cancelled because of the pandemic. A television series that would have given her some financial security was also in the works, but that fell through too. In fact, everything fell through, including her personal life.

I ask her about it, tentatively, aware of the intrusion. “So, a guy, a girl, what’s the set-up, if any?”

“Well, lately, a guy, but we’ve just broken up. Just four weeks ago.”

She attributes it to the enforced distance between them, at opposite ends of the world. “So you’re saying it went bust because of the virus and the separation the way people’s marriages are destroyed when one of them goes to jail?” I ask.

“Pretty much.”

It’s sobering to learn that this young woman, who sounds very much destined for what Oscar Wilde once referred to as “the sunlit heights” of success, should have had such a comedown.

Feaver is currently developing a musical and a play commissioned respectively by Britain’s National Theatre and Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club, and she’s at work, against the odds, on another alluring project in Australia. Does she feel, I ask on impulse, that Australian theatre can be narrower than British theatre and that this can go with an entrenched mediocrity?

“Look, I think there sometimes is an aspect of that,” she says. “But I also think it’s understandable. It’s so hard to find a foothold in Australian theatre, let alone any financial security, so people with access cling to what they’ve got. There’s less of an opportunity to be generous in a smaller world that’s severely underfunded.”

Feaver wants to explore the dramatic spectrum. The play written for the Almeida, Godmoney, looks at how the Australian gold rushes turned places such as Melbourne into great cities of the New World.

“It’s about the way the discovery of gold created diasporas, then desert places, wastelands where towns had been. It also involves interrogating some of the great Australian myths associated with the Eureka Stockade, with the Lambing Flat assaults on the Chinese population. But I’ve struggled with the storytelling limitations that strict historical realism can impose, so in order to confront and subvert everything I want to, I’ve been leaning on magic realism as a way forward, as a way to bypass time if I need to.”

Wherever She Wanders is now rescheduled for production at Griffin in mid-2021. “I’m very interested in the tension, the growing fracture between second-wave feminists and the much younger activists who have created massive social media campaigns to bring attention to sexual assault stories,” she says.

She’s interested in how feminist elders – the Helen Garners, the Margaret Atwoods – speak differently from the current stridencies of social media.

“I’m wary of black-and-white thinking generally,” she says. “I think that’s why I became a playwright – to interrogate, to question – but I’m also not interested in passing judgement on either side. I’m interested in the ‘why’. Why is this fracture happening? Why is this so divisive, so deeply felt and fought over? Theatre, I think, in the act of gathering, then watching, listening, is one of the better places to explore these difficult conversations.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2020 as "Feaver dreams".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.