Patricia Cornelius’s play My Sister Jill – the story of a family between two wars – creates an other-worldly sense of suspension. By Robert Reid.
My Sister Jill
My Sister Jill, by Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius, is a coming-of-age story for both family and nation, a tale of trauma and survival that’s at once immediately familiar and placed at a distance. A stage adaptation for Melbourne Theatre Company of Cornelius’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, it’s directed by her long-term collaborator, Susie Dee.
The work of Cornelius and Dee has never lacked bite, intelligence, humour or unsentimental political analysis. They have been collaborating since the 1980s, when they both performed in Cornelius’s Lilly and May. In 1987, Cornelius founded Melbourne Workers Theatre with Michael White and Steve Payne, a company dedicated for 30 years to making theatre for and about working-class people.
Cornelius’s plays have always focused on marginalised people, exploring power and inequity in human relationships. From State of Defence to Who’s Afraid of the Working Class, Slut, Love and Shit, she consistently brings a fiercely critical eye and empathetic heart to her work. Savages is a blistering critique of toxic masculinity at its most monstrous. Do Not Go Gentle – a masterpiece and already a classic of Australian theatre – looks at ageing and Alzheimer’s through the lens of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. The characters feel real, passionate and alive, even as they battle through their taxing lives and worlds.
For those familiar with Cornelius’s work, My Sister Jill may seem like a departure. It follows a working-class Australian family between two wars – World War II and the Vietnam War. The disastrous effects of World War II on former soldiers and their families, the emerging counterculture in the ’60s and ’70s and its struggles against the previous generation are common themes in Australian theatre, from The One Day of the Year, A Town Named War Boy to Minefields and Miniskirts, Cloudstreet, even The Chapel Perilous. There’s nothing wrong with re-examining familiar territory to find forgotten stories or new ways of seeing the familiar, but My Sister Jill doesn’t really do either of these. It is more like a neat summary of all those plays and more. Instead of a family whose emotional journey we experience as tumultuous, conflicted and urgent, it presents us with narratively connected vignettes that resonate with unresolved tension.
This is a domestic story of a family struggling through the social changes that followed World War II. Jack (Ian Bliss), Martha (Maude Davey) and their five children live in a tiny home, the older generation struggling to deal with the scars left by the war, the younger generation attempting to come to terms with their emerging identities. Inevitably, their conflicts drive them apart. Yet, despite the dark aspects of their life together and the eventual crumbling of the family unit, the story is told with a light touch and affection for the characters and their world that is dramaturgically at odds with the atmosphere of the production. A tone of menace haunts every scene yet never seems to come fully out of the shadows.
Jack is a returned soldier struggling with PTSD in the same way so many of that generation did, by bottling up his emotions and resorting to alcohol. He has a quick temper and there is a constant suggestion of violence even when he is at his happiest, playing with the kids or admiring his garden. Martha is the dependable stalwart of the family, defending Dad and urging the kids to “remember what he’s been through”. The five kids include the two eldest, Johnnie (James O’Connell) and the eponymous Jill (Lucy Goleby), twin boys Door (Benjamin Nichol) and Mouse (Zachary Pidd), and the youngest daughter, Christine (Angourie Rice), who acts as the narrator.
The play’s title suggests that the story will focus on Jill: her fight to assert herself in the face of parental authority and the inspiration she provides her siblings by seeking her own way. The play itself concentrates a lot of focus on Jack. At the beginning, a monologue from Christine introduces her father to the audience as the biggest an’ bravest an’ best dad in the world. It sits oddly against the brief introduction to Jack moments before, in the moody moonlight outside the house. His posture is stiff, chest puffed, chin forward: his presence whispering a threat of violence from the beginning.
Dee’s direction produces energetic performances but it also draws my attention to the disconnection I feel from the production. The characters come across as ciphers and the presentational style Dee brings to their realisation at times gives the work an almost cartoon-like quality. Marg Horwell’s set sits awkwardly in the cavernous space of the Sumner. The front wall can fly up to reveal the interior, one room in which all five children sleep. The set, and how Rachel Burke’s lighting isolates it, makes this world hover in a void. Kelly Ryall’s atmospheric sound design adds to the otherworldly, uncanny feeling of the experience.
The sense of hovering, of not knowing, of only sensing disquiet and catching fleeting moments, is engaging and unsettling at once, almost like an Australian episode of The Twilight Zone – and maybe that’s the point. However, there are few moments of structural consequence, because we don’t follow the children on their journey into the world. From one scene to the next, the children are simply gone.
We’re left with an uneasy feeling of suspense. A dread that hangs over the story that never really manifests. An impact withheld. I wonder if this comes from our expectations from all the other times we’ve seen this kind of story. Perhaps in the process of adaptation, the play has lost some of the contextual and emotional cues that a novel allows. How the scenes sit with each other, the kinds of details that emerge in the dialogue, suggest a world of detail and narrative that might have failed to travel from the book.
I struggled with My Sister Jill. I think we’re supposed to. Yet it’s impossible to overstate how important it is that main-stage companies continue to support the work of artists too-long overlooked, such as Cornelius and Dee. They’ve contributed many major works to the Australian theatre canon. It wouldn’t hurt to revisit some of those earlier plays and give them the audiences they always deserved.
My Sister Jill is playing at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until October 28.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Jack and Jill".
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