October 14, 2015

A Lighter White

The Aspirations of Daise Morrow,
Based on a short story by Patrick White.
Brink Productions with the Zephyr Quartet
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
October 13. Tickets: $ 25 – $ 48.
Bookings : BASS 131246 or
Until October 24.
Duration: 80 minutes

Patrick White called his short story Down at the Dump but in their visually captivating , splendidly lucid stage adaptation, Brink Productions have re-named it The Aspirations of Daise Morrow. Aspirations, we know, are things we hope and strive for, but the word literally means to take breath. And in the Catholic liturgy it denotes a short prayer repeated throughout the day.

These multiple implications bring a numinous, other-worldly aspect to director Chris Drummond’s production which, while true to White’s earthy gusto and vinegary satire, is gentler and less grotesque.

The final story in his 1964 collection, The Burnt Ones, (from which came another excellent stage adaptation : Neil Armfield’s A Cheery Soul) Down at the Dump describes the gathering of friends and family for the funeral of Daise Morrow, a loving free-spirit who has scandalized the town of Sarsaparilla, especially her mortified, tight-lipped sister, Myrtle Hogben.

Not everyone is at the cemetery murmuring homilies, however. The Whalley family have taken some cold beers down to the town dump for a fossick and a few laughs. In White’s world of attracting opposites, Myrtle’s daughter Meg strays from her aunt’s funeral for some life-affirming love time with the eldest Whalley boy, Lummy.

Designer Michael Hankin describes “the heavy cream and cloudless morning skies” of Australian painters such as Drysdale, Nolan and Boyd as inspiration for the vast unbleached canopy, expertly bathed in light by Nigel Levings and stretched above the audience like a marquee. The costumes – aprons, pinafores, overalls and loose sleeved shirts invoke The Drover’s Wife; the chalky make-up adds an expressionist twist. The entire floor of the Space is covered in turf and dried leaves and the audience is seated in circles of wooden chairs as the performers operate in-the-round.

The excellent actors share White’s salty, funny, deftly poetic narrative and morph their way through a cavalcade of characters and caricatures. Paul Blackwell is both easy-going Wal and the prim Myrtle, ropeable and mystified by her rebellious sister. Kris McQuade takes us from the cheery Mrs Whalley to Councillor Hogben in his pork pie hat. Lucy Lehmann captures Meg’s schoolgirl innocence and the vivacious élan of Daise, draped in her raffish shawl. As Lummy and Daise’s one true mourner, Ossie, James Smith is also outstanding.

Central to the success of this beautifully crafted production is the music performed and jointly composed by Hilary Kleinig, Jason Thomas, Emily Tulloch and Belinda Gehlert of the Zephyr Quartet. From the playful pizzicato opening to the mellifluous Michael Nyman-esque loops of melody, they add a tenderness and warmth to the proceedings which serves Chris Drummond’s alchemic purpose. The acerbic Patrick White might not approve, but Daise Morrow would.

Murray Bramwell

“A Lighter White”, The Australian, October 15, 2015, p.16.

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