A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be: a review of The Torrents (Black Swan State Theatre Company)

We will have come far when that statement is as well known a truism as ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ was ever held to be.

A woman’s place is centre stage: Celia Pacquola plays J.G. (Jenny) Milford, the young, capable journalist who joins the team at the Argus (newspaper) in the fictional gold-rush town, Koolgalla, much to the surprise of the all-male team. A surprise, even, to Editor-in-Chief, Rufus Torrent, played by Tony Cogin, who, not for a second thinking the ‘J’ in ‘J.G Milford’ stands for Jenny, employs her, rightfully, based on the credentials communicated by her resume. Realising his ‘mistake’, Rufus considers Miss Milford’s immediate resignation a moot point. He is amiable, and apologises for any inconvenience. He is almost out the door, coat and hat in hand, when Jenny speaks up: she shan’t be resigning simply because she is a woman. And she puts it to Mr Torrent that he does not prove himself a man when he dismisses a woman out of hand, but when he shows the courage to employ a capable woman when most other men would not. Whether it is male pride that precludes Torrent from shying away from this challenge, or his courage, given the times, to maintain Miss Milford on his staff, Rufus agrees Jenny can stay on. 

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Celia Pacquola played Jenny Milford with the right amount of restraint and decorum but she seemed overconfident and even glib at times. The modern woman then would have been quite different to the modern woman of today and it was, unfortunately, the latter with which Celia imbued the character, resulting in a Jenny Milford slightly incongruous to the world of the play. Yes, this is a play that champions women but it does not offer the strength of women as a foregone conclusion. A champion needs to falter, fail, fall, then rise again, overcome obstacles, and emerge, eventually, victorious. Never really vulnerable, ostracised, or in danger, Miss Milford always seemed to have the upper hand, which is arguably not what playwright Oriel Gray intended. Ms Gray was far too sophisticated, I think, to write a panegyric on the superiority of women.

A woman’s place is the Artistic Director of a premier theatre company: Clare Watson, Artistic Director of Black Swan State Theatre Company, and Director of The Torrents, has once again shown her ability to unearth and realise stories of great importance. Her direction of The Torrents is broad in scope, fearless, sensitive, and clearly considered. The sense of ensemble, unity, and cohesion are by now markers of a production headed by Clare.

The homage Clare pays to playwright Oriel Gray is conspicuous. ‘Oriel Gray’ in pink neon lights graced the stage both at the beginning and end of the play. The applause given to this neon light feature by the cast at the end of the play was both touching and telling. Clare’s admiration for Gray may have led to some bias as far as how the male characters were portrayed with respect to the females – or vice versa. The men in this production were skewed slightly towards the bumbling-fool end of the ‘real-man’ spectrum, which, again, is arguably not what Gray intended, and is what arguably made things easy for Jenny Milford. The Black Swan team would do well to remember that almost all of the men in this play are highly intelligent, highly educated, or both, despite their respective flaws – an editor of a newspaper, an engineer who has designed a sustainable irrigation scheme; a gold-rich tycoon, who, despite his rough exterior, has worked hard to strike it rich and has clearly shown himself to be no fool when it comes to investing; a promising journalist, who, despite suffering from a lack of confidence, caused, it seems, from living in his father’s shadow, is considered good enough to head up a new newspaper  in opposition to his father, a proposal put to him by that same gold-rich tycoon. This is a world of accomplished men, not oafs, into which Jenny Milford has stepped.

The play was skewed, also, towards comedy. While there is much humour to be found in The Torrents, and more than enough irony, the production was diminished by playing for laughs and apologising for the chauvinistic inclinations of its male characters. It was disappointing to see Ben Torrent’s (Rufus’ son) lowest ebb, thoroughly drunk after failing to measure up to his father, treated as if it were all a bit of fun (though this is not to say it is the fault of Gareth Davies, who played Ben). And it was disappointing, inasmuch as the drama was poorer for it, to see such lines as ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ said tongue in cheek. Very few men, I imagine – and very few women, I would argue – would have found that statement humorous in those days. Virginia Gay, as Dramaturg, really needs to watch for these things.

That said, praise must go to all the actors. Tony Cogin as Rufus Torrent embodied perfectly the at-times tempered, at-times fiery Editor-in-Chief of the Argus. His bearing, accent – and his beard! – were superb. 

Gareth Davies as Ben Torrent showed once again his mastery when it comes to comic timing (I have seen him in a number of productions in Sydney and he has impressed me every time). Gareth’s comic prowess on this occasion, however, might have come at the expense of the pathos needed for the role.

Luke Carroll played very well the enthusiastic Kingsley, who has a clear vision – and workable plan – for a sustainable future for the town. Enthusiasm, however, seemed to be Kingsley’s only trait. Kingsley might be a more rounded character given some extra gravitas. Carroll, as Kingsley, might do well to remember that he is not simply spruiking his wares. He is, at the same time, issuing a grave warning: if we don’t do something sustainable, we all suffer – we all perish. Carroll, as Kingsley, needs to hold more sway over the men who are listening to his ideas. He should remember that he is an authority in his field.

Geoff Kelso, as Christy, was an appropriately comic, if not stock, character, a faux sage who regaled his younger colleagues with stories of his life, real or imagined. Rob Johnson, as 16-year-old Bernie, was one of Christy’s willing listeners. Still naive, the seed of the future man – one who treats women with respect, and as equals – was clearly within him. Rob, as Bernie, struck the right balance between boy and man, formed, but not so much that he couldn’t explore ways of thinking and being beyond those he has been inculcated with. Jock McDonald, embodied by Sam Longley, also shows he is capable of growth (pun intended!), able to reconcile the mores of society with the revelation that a woman’s place can quite easily be in burgeoning newspaper organisation. These three loveable larrikins – Jock, Bernie, and Christy – unfortunately portrayed as a kind of ‘three stooges’ at times, stand up for Jenny Milford when a well-intentioned act of hers arouses the ire of Editor-in-Chief, Rufus.

Another character whose wrath was certainly felt was John Mason, played strongly by Steve Rodgers. Not a man to mess with, Rodgers, as Mason, brought power to the stage – the power of wealth and the consequences of those who oppose it.

A fairly weak, though no less instrumental character, arguably illustrative of the pre-emancipated woman, bringing thus into high relief the progressive Jenny, was Gwynne, played by Emily Rose Brennan. Emily as Gwynne was one of the few characters who could actually have been from the 1890s. I have seen Emily play a very progressive woman in another Black Swan production (see also my review of Water) and to play convincingly such a naive woman from over a century ago just goes to show her versatility as an actor. When asked by Jenny Milford what she could do (i.e. what talents she had), Emily as Gwynne, could have pulled a thousand faces in order to show her bewilderment, drawing, in turn, the standard chuckles from the crowd. But Emily is no amateur. Genuinely searching her mind for an answer to Jenny’s question, Emily as Gwynne visibly came up with a blank, which both authenticated her character and evoked riotous laughter from the audience.

A woman’s place is as Set and Costume Designer: Renée Mulder is literally a creator of worlds. An amazing, wonderfully detailed box set transported us to the 1890s, inside the offices of the Argus newspaper. The period costumes, thanks also to Costume Makers Jennifer Edwards and Nicole Marrington, were remarkable, and simply need to be seen. Indeed, I’d highly recommend seeing this production if only to appreciate what Renée’ has done as a standalone work of art.

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A woman’s place is as Lighting Designer: The passage of time between scenes was perhaps rendered most clearly by Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting. Fast-forwards of sun-ups and sun-downs gave a very clear sense of time. The external world, moreover, was palpable thanks to Lucy’s design.

Changes of scene were also enjoyably rendered by the banjo stylings of Joe Paradise Lui. The hiphop music at the start of the play, while ‘cool’ didn’t add much to the experience despite its irresistible groove and strong feminine lyrics.

A woman’s place is as Voice and Dialect Coach: Beyond Renée Mulder’s masterpiece and Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting, without which we would not have had our ‘theatron’, the believability of this piece was enhanced by a number of authentic accents, most notably Irish (Rufus Torrent), Scottish (Jock McDonald), and broad Australian (John Mason), thanks in large part to Voice and Dialect Coach, Luzita Fereday.

This is a must-see play and a must-see production. I sincerely hope it tours because Australia would be richer for it. I would even go so far as to say this production would enjoy success in London and New York but for that to happen I think the tone of the production needs to be more serious. Modern theatre audiences (note I did not say all of modern society) are already sold on the idea that a woman can do whatever she likes – and do it as well, in most cases, as any man – and that any suggestion to the contrary is by now not only passé but erroneous. Deliberately highlighting the irony, therefore, will do more harm than good. I think modern women will be empowered more by seeing their present struggles reflected in Jenny Milford’s than any patent message of their equality with, or superiority to, men. I think women will be strengthened more by understanding better the legacy left by their foremothers than any exhortation – deliberate or subtle – to stand their ground and exact their rights. And I think men will not benefit from simply being shown the ignoramuses they were – and still are, I’m sure some women would argue. I think men will benefit more from seeing what was – and is – required to overcome their ignorance in relation to women, despite all the things they have going for them – and that is, playwright Oriel Gray, I think, makes it clear, courage. 

Oriel Gray does not condemn men – she simply shows us a better world – one that lies beyond misogyny. Indeed, Oriel Gray’s championing of women is all the stronger for her role as the devil’s advocate in the play she wrote.