August 01, 1996


The Shifting Heart
by Richard Beynon

State Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

In 1957 The Shifting Heart created considerable impact for its young playwright Richard Beynon. In fact, at the time, prospective producers were wary of the currency of its themes. Triggered by a newspaper report about the suicide of a Polish immigrant -the Mr Leczycki named in the play’s dedication- The Shifting Heart examines, in the microcosm of Collingwood’s Bianchi family, the social and cultural tensions created by the extensive European migration in Australia’s post-war expansion.

Since it was first performed the play has become an often-studied school text and something of a staple for amateur companies. The Shifting Heart has an established place in our theatre history. Nevertheless, in mounting a mainstage professional revival State Theatre faces a considerable task. And, in the hands of director Adam Cook, their production has not succeeded.

The Shifting Heart is full of vigorous incident. It is Christmas time and while Poppa and Momma Bianchi are preparing to gather the family together their son Gino is discovering that anglo Australia is not much in the mood for yuletide goodwill. Caught in a cycle of harassment and response – a rotten fish comes over the fence, a drain is blocked in reprisal- the Bianchis are unaware that for Gino the usual scuffles are escalating fatally beyond a point of no return.

The indignities are close to home as well. Gino’s sister Maria is married and pregnant to Clarry, a young ocker with whitebread prejudices of his own. Its OK for Gino to work for Clarry’s truck business but a partnership- Fowler and Bianchi -is beyond the pale. The crises of Gino’s stabbing and Maria’s troubled labour are the parallel pivots of a text that is laced with sentiment, stereotype and, with the final toast to the infant Gino, Son of New Australia, brought to contrived resolution.

The impact of the subject matter- even if the victimised group was changed from Italian to Asian to reflect current concerns- has greatly diminished for a contemporary audience. Beynon’s controversy has had four decades to resolve- and complicate again in quite different ways. For an audience thoroughly attuned to Italian culture, from cuisine to fashion to sport, The Shifting Heart is not something to reflect over our cappucinos about.

This is the difficulty Adam Cook faces. But rather than contend with it, he and designer Genevieve Blanchette exacerbate matters by bringing so little spin to the staging. The set, a shanty two up, two down back view of a Collingwood terrace is bounded by two fences- one formidably excluding, the other gappy enough to permit Leila Pratt to bring in her heart-of-gold neighbourliness and escape her violent buffoon of a husband. Apart from the huge blue cyclorama upstage prompt side the setting is largely indistinguishable from the program’s archive photo of the Adelaide Guild production.
But the combination of unexamined naturalism in the staging and the two-dimensional performances is even more disheartening.

The strong cast, led by Rosalba Clemente as Momma and Petru Gheorghiu as Poppa, is squandered on stock performances reminiscent of Nino Cullotta’s They’re a Weird Mob. All shuddupa- your-face accents and gesticulation from pasta sauce commercials, the performances should be brought down to fewer decibels with less latter-day commedia. Having said that, Gheorghiu is effective as the father, in spite of the cliches of the happy-go-lucky Mediterranean, and Rosalba Clemente brings charm and some touching moments of shading in a performance that has many echoes from her role in Minghella’s A Little Like Drowning.

As Leila Pratt, Pauline Terry-Beitz keeps the Aussie cheerfulness within credible boundaries and Peter Dunn has a sinister comedy as her bullying husband Donny- although Beynon’s subtext on domestic violence is disturbingly incomplete, not only in relation to this character but to Clarry also. Gina Zoia is resolute as the long-suffering Maria and Shane Feeney-Connor, when he takes it down a few cogs, is convincing as Clarry. Peter Raymond-Powell has little to work with as a the racist cop, Lukie, but Vince Poletto acquits himself memorably as Gino.

The Shifting Heart identifies one of the difficulties of the Australian Playhouse season. It is a play which deserves recognition for the ground it established. But a full-scale revival which adds as little as this production does exposes the text as historical curiosity not vibrant classic. At a time when we have a keen sense that theatre needs to reclaim its immediacy we need to see more of the beatings of our own shifting hearts- and not defined too regionally and nationalistically either. With The Torrents, The Doll and a trip to the South Pole yet to come, I hope that the Playhouse won’t feel like a museum by the time the year’s over.

The Adelaide Review, August, 1996.

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