August 01, 1994

Familiar Lessons

Morning Sacrifice
by Dymphna Cusack
State Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Reviving a play can often be a damnable business. You are damned if you do it and even more damned if you don’t. There was some lively discussion around our part of the stalls, for instance, about whether Morning Sacrifice was worth the evening sacrifice or not. One heatedly dismissed the play as a waste of time but a number, including several teachers, quietly and keenly defended.

Dymphna Cusack’s play, we might think, has a certain quaintness now, defined by its time and circumstance. While this is partly true it does too little justice to the verve and commitment of Cusack and her forthright response to the world around her. When she worked as a teacher in Broken Hill she also wrote scathing reports to the Sydney press about work and community conditions there. She also took on the NSW Education Department over a compensation issue. It was during one of her last teaching stints in Newcastle in 1942 that she wrote Morning Sacrifice and it was taken up by the Perth Repertory at the end of that year.

Morning Sacrifice is set in Easthaven, a girls’ school. It describes a bitter struggle between the women staff members as they deal with a trivial act of impropriety. Mary Grey, a prefect and favourite senior student of great promise, is seen kissing a boy at the school dance. Moral outrage is unleashed by the deputy, Portia Kingsbury, who wants to expel the girl. Amongst the staff the responses range from prurient to vengeful. Only free-thinking Glynn Carwithen and former-pupil-now-teacher Sheila Ray defend the disgraced Mary. The weight of hysterical pressure sees Glynn dismissed and Sheila, in a fretful state, commits suicide.

The State Theatre production directed by Cath McKinnon and designed by Mary Moore has been influenced, as McKinnon’s notes suggest, by the techniques of film noir. But rather than the moody chiaroscuro of the genre the production has the perkiness of Elstree or Pinewood in its heyday. The English association is appropriate. There is none of the broad patois of Come in Spinner here, only the genteel accents of bourgeois indoctrination. It is no wonder that Cusack would dramatise a more robust version of her own rebellion in the outsider Glynn Carwithen.

The effect of Moore’s design, all blacks and whites and greys, is excellent. The sense of the play being a period piece, a little movie from the recent past, is well made and the airy cutaway set lifts away from any fidgetty naturalism. It is a strong conception and pays due tribute to the play’s residual virtues.

Unfortunately some of the performances on the evening I attended were nervy and tentative. Audine Leith’s illness necessitated a valiant stand-in reading from Emma Salter as Miss Hammond and while this was well accomplished it seemed to faze the fluency of the production. Cusack’s characters are somewhat variable ranging from caricatures such as the interfering Miss Bates to the idealised figures of Glynn and the aptly named Miss Sole.

Eileen Darley is intelligent vivacious as Glynn, Barbara West endearing as Miss Sole. Maureen Sherlock’s Miss Pearl is also shrewdly judged, true to Cusack’s depiction of repressed sexuality between some of the women. Claire Jones is splendidly cast as Sheila Ray and the pathos of her decline, somewhat overwrought in Cusack’s text, is generally well-handled. Ellen Freeman has a field day with the obnoxious Bates and although it could have been pegged back a notch the part is meant to be broad. As Miss Kingsbury, a complex and difficult figure, Ellen Cressey is unconvincing and an important pivot in the production is lost.

Morning Sacrifice is a good-looking production, suavely lit by Karen Norris and consummately designed by Mary Moore. If people don’t get in a tizz over a kiss any more that shouldn’t be said to date the play. Cusack avidly discusses education, social opportunity, and the conditions of women in the work force. The play is vivid and vigorous and, when the performances embrace that, the production fares well.

It is refreshing to see Australian works from the back catalogue getting an airing and State chose a thoughtful classic to coincide with the Third International Women Playwrights Conference. When you consider that Cusack wrote without the apparatus of funding and script development that exists today the very existence of her nuggety play is a triumph. The challenge is open for a playwright to capture the life of women as well in 1994 as Cusack managed to do while holding down a teaching job in the toughest days of the Second World War.

The Adelaide Review, No. 130, August, 1994. p.31.

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