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August 28, 1985

Journey to the future

Too Young for Ghosts, by Janis Balodis, is being performed by Adelaide’s Stage Company in the Festival Centre Space.

This play uses displacement both as theme and technique. It describes seven Latvian emigres following their arrival in Australia in 1945 and interweaves the narrative with a speculative account of Ludwig Leichhardt’s ill-fated expedition from the Gulf of Carpenteria southwest to Perth in 1847.

The play is audacious and assured in its use of flashback and narrative shifts which, though complex, are lucid and crisply written.

Balodis uses the experience of displaced persons to consider questions of life and culture in Australia.

The displaced persons (DPs) must contend with their grief for lost language, history and culture and then, like Leichhardt with his sextant, consider the vast, forbidding geography and apparently arid culture in new ways.

It is an enterprise which everywhere ┬Ěthreatens failure – as Leichhardt perished with Gilbert and others in search of inland waterways so the DPs are burdened by a shattered past and an obliterating future.

Leichhardt marked the letter L on trees to assist a return he never made just as the Latvians mark tracks which can no longer connect with a country which has ceased to exist. Balodis draws the two strands together to show a recurrent failure in Australia to accommodate European experience.

The doubling characters become doppelgangers as the play reveals the restless ghosts of those for whom Australia has meant death.

The Stage production follows the author’s directives of simplicity and versatility in costume and design.

Director Henry Salter ensures that the theatrical clarity of the writing is preserved through David Walters’ fluent lighting changes and well defined if uneven performances.

Emma Salter as Ilse gives a good account of a woman bravely reconciling principle and expediency in post-war Stuttgart under American occupation and in Australia with her spiv of a husband, Karl, played by Patrick Frost.

Alan Becher gives strong performances as the cranky, egotistical and doomed Leichhardt and Edvards, the defaced and defeated war veteran returning to find his wife has given him up for dead.

It is proof of the resonance of Balodis’s confident dramatic sense and sturdy, forthright script that the scene where Edvards is abandoned by his wife Ruth (Hilary Miller) and her lover Leonids (Bob Newman), who escape by boat only to be drowned in the swamps, can effortlessly function as a metaphor for the necessity to settle the grudge with the past before the future can begin.

Similarly, when Edvards cuts down the last of Leichhardt’s markers we are grimly aware that displacement is total, for his generation at least.

The Stage Company has made a good fist of a fine new play. We are not too young for ghosts or too old for the timely message that in the making of this country, good people are still being chewed up in the machinery.

The National Times, August 23, 1985, p.35 (?)

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