At the beginning of Belvoir’s Stop Girl, we meet Suzie (Sheridan Harbridge) in her office in Afghanistan in 2011. She’s wearing Blundstone boots and a scarf that she uses to cover her hair for reporting. Her bumbag contains a phone that doesn’t stop ringing.
“Welcome to the Kabul bureau,” she announces to her friend Bec (Amber McMahon), a photographer who’s arrived to take pictures for a profile of Suzie. We all laugh. The “Kabul bureau” is Suzie crouching in front of laptop with a doona covering her to create a sound barrier as she files audio reports of the latest bombings. The joke sets the tone immediately: the dark humour of the cynical foreign correspondent.
We learn quickly that while Bec has a husband and kids at home, Suzie’s postings around the world’s war zones mean that she’s still single. She makes another joke about being Bridget Jones in a bulletproof vest, and that lands too. The banter is speedy, flowing easily, until it’s interrupted by an almighty explosion. Bec cowers and panics. Suzie doesn’t flinch.
Atal (Mansoor Noor) joins them at the bombsite. He’s a local who’s trained as an engineer but now works with Suzie as a camera operator and translator. We learn the bomber was a teenager who planned to attack foreigners in a supermarket but who instead killed an entire local family. Bec reels while Suzie is all business. The next day, before they join a patrol, Suzie gives Bec a quick lesson on identifying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and is confused and dismissive when Bec announces she won’t be coming.
So far the play has rocketed along, with high-intensity scenes and regular bursts of laughter. Then it’s time for Suzie to come home to Sydney, and the record scratches.
Playwright Sally Sara speaks openly about Stop Girl being “semi-autobiographical”. Sara was a foreign correspondent for years and in 2011 was made a member of the Order of Australia for service to journalism and the community. She experienced a breakdown in 2012 after returning home from Afghanistan. The play teems with a multitude of funny and devastating specificities imagined out from Sara’s life in this strange and extreme job.
In a one-act play that is essentially about a woman’s breakdown, I expected the “break” to be the climax. Sara has deliberately avoided this, instead showing us Suzie’s breakdown quite early. It forces us to sit through the rest of the play in Suzie’s quotidian anguish.
In her director’s note, Anne-Louise Sarks talks about the “epic struggle” of the everyday, and this certainly comes through. The clothing and few pieces of furniture we see are understated, allowing dialogue and delivery to do all the work.
Toni Scanlan stands out as Marg, Suzie’s mother. Sara brilliantly captures the simultaneous love and tension in their relationship. Marg criticises Suzie for getting her groceries delivered when Woolies is just down the road, not understanding that Suzie is unable to go into supermarkets because of her post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sara’s sketch of a mother at the older end of the boomer range is uncanny; the audience cackles in warm recognition when Marg talks about “putting chops on”, and her fear/reverence for Quentin Bryce. A recurring issue is that Suzie’s father, Marg’s husband, died a year before, and asked Suzie to scatter his ashes. Suzie can’t bring herself to complete this final memorial task, and her avoidance is painful to watch. It’s refreshing to see semi-autobiographical work that presents the various ways in which the protagonist is compromised or implicated. In not quite liking Suzie, I respect Sara.
Harbridge delivers a compelling portrait – particularly in her physicality – of someone in the throes of a protracted breakdown. A gun is fired and Suzie hits the deck, but when Bec appears in leggings we realise they’re at a school athletics carnival. Robert Cousins’ strategically minimal design makes these transitions as confusing for us as they clearly are for Suzie herself.
Projections on the back wall interrupt Suzie’s life with erratic, choppy images of Afghan faces, and are accompanied by static noise. One particular scene sent shockwaves of recognition through me: Suzie is hunched over and rocking in extreme distress and her hands shake as she reaches for her mobile. When she gets the message bank of her employer’s counselling service we hear what is obviously her “telephone voice”, calm and assertive, leaving her name and number and requesting someone call her back. The unfolding of her interaction with the bureaucratic “mental health plan” will ring true to anyone who’s experienced anything similar.
I wanted to spend more time in some of the play’s more uncomfortable places. Suzie mentions early on that she grapples with the idea that her coverage might be “free press” for the extremists, for example, but moves on by arguing that someone has to document the war crimes. Elsewhere we’re introduced to the implications of white Westerners making their livings from the deaths of those caught in war.
Atal confronts Suzie for her brutal response after he learns of a death in his family. “Our stories don’t begin when you start telling them,” he says. Seeing herself through his eyes horrifies Suzie, but she apologises – without dealing with the wider implications – for the role she plays as an individual. Will the Belvoir audience do this work themselves?
Later, Atal also has to explain things to Marg. She has complained about her daughter being involved in “someone else’s war”, clearly implicating Afghanistan and its citizens. He replies that there are people caught in the crossfire who have never even seen the television footage of the two towers falling in Manhattan. This isn’t their war either.
Suzie helps Atal get out of Afghanistan and come to Australia when it becomes clear that working with her has put a target on his back. However, Atal’s characterisation wavers dangerously close to the “ideal immigrant” trope: his eternal cheer, his consistent optimism, his willingness to work hard while he tries to get his engineering qualifications recognised in Australia. It doesn’t make the character unrealistic, because of course Australia is full of such people and stories, but the fleeting moments in which he speaks up for himself and his people are powerful and I wanted more.
Stop Girl is firmly Suzie’s story. “I feel ashamed,” Suzie says to Atal, grappling with how she can have so much trauma after only a year in the country in which he had lived his whole life. He reassures her that her pain is valid, which is absurd but also true. I was reminded of one of Zadie Smith’s essays in her Covid-19 collection, Intimations, in which she argues that suffering isn’t invalidated by privilege. “Suffering applies itself directly to its subject and will not be shamed out of itself or eradicated by righteous argument, no matter how objectively correct that argument may be.”
If suffering is felt, then it is real. I cried a lot during this play, so it must have been real enough for me.
Stop Girl plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until April 25.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "War traumas".
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