Playwright Patricia Cornelius is known for populating the stage with complex, working-class, characters and artfully bringing to life an often-maligned Australian vernacular. She is also one of Australia’s foremost feminist playwrights, turning her critical gaze to the intersecting problems of racism, xenophobia, class, and sexism.
Big Heart, currently being staged at Theatreworks in Melbourne, raises a mirror to Australia’s false sense of generosity toward others. Cornelius notes in the programme, “it’s all looking a bit dodgy this generosity of ours”. The title of the play reveals an attitude of wryness. Indeed, how can we claim collective generosity in an era of paranoid border protection, indefinite detention of asylum seekers, and the continuing dispossession of Indigenous people from country? These developments are a sign of our personal and political meanness, not acts of love and generosity.
The play focuses on a middle-class mother’s choice to adopt one child from each of the continents, which in turn becomes a parable about global economic structures and exploitation. Cornelius carefully stitches a critique of power from colonialism to neoliberalism into the script, without overwhelming the humanness of its characters.
An account of the first 20 years of a wealthy, adoptive family’s life, it journeys through the daily routines and rituals of raising children. It shows their cloying affections, endeavours at school, and inevitable encounter with the presumptions of “whiteness” by their peers.
Andrea Swifte gives a very nuanced and not unsympathetic performance as the mother (known by no other title). In her opening monologue, she speaks of her determination to avoid a family built on “blood ties”, and to “live life well”, that is, morally. She is a proudly appointed member of the board of her father’s company - a dubious privilege she later attempts to bestow upon her adoptive children - and openly admits her privilege as a white, upper middle-class, woman.
She sources her babies from orphanages in Vietnam, the Sudan, Nicaragua, Bosnia, and one from her “own land”, Australia. She names them respectively Daniela (Elmira Jurik), Edward (Vuyo Loko), Charlotte (Daniella Farinacci), Elizabeth (Kasia Kaczmarek) and Charles (Sermsah Bin Saad) Simpson. The script very deliberately presents opportunities for multicultural casting, which have been taken up. The vibrant cast appear comfortable in their skins speaking Cornelius’s words. This is a testament to them, as well as to the sensitivity of Cornelius’s writing, and commitment to a multicultural viewpoint.
A leather chesterfield armchair sits centre stage upon a large, warm carpet. A row of desks with lamps lines the backstage. On the wall hangs a disproportionately large family portrait with the proud mother at the centre. As an ordered and impeccable manor, thid represents a stratum of suburban life that is out of reach for most Australians.
Later, the stage is littered with an array of possessions. The surly teenagers criss-cross the spacious living room, unceremoniously dropping a saxophone, rollerblades, surfboard, soccer ball, helmets, and hockey stick onto the thoroughfare. The children compete for their mother’s attention and it is here that Susie Dee’s direction delivers some highly theatrical and choreographic moments. The children break into a stylised chorus, asking their mother difficult questions about their origins. “Is my mother dead?” “Did she abandon me?”
As a teenager, Edward becomes radicalised by the writings of Malcolm X, giving actor Vuyo Loko an opportunity for impassioned oration. Daniela sources skin-whitening pills while on tour in Vietnam. She refuses to stop taking them. It is a beauty regime her white mother couldn’t possibly understand.
Charles spies a woman at the bus-stop who recognises him and screams with grief, “I know you”. Her presence indicates the prospect of his being one of the Stolen Generation. According to the mother, Charles was inscrutable from the beginning; when she first gazed into his eyes, it felt as though she were “staring into the abyss”. Perhaps this is a reference to the blindness of colonialism’s cruel regime, and concept of “terra nullius” – literally, “this land is empty”. As the plot advances, the polite and liberal veneer of the household begins to show signs of strain and rupture. Ultimately, there is the revelation of a taboo that rocks the house to its foundations.
These conflicts point to the fact that the mother’s reproductive “choices” interlock with the West’s economic dominion over the “third-world” and Indigenous Australia. Her adoption becomes a symbol for the expropriation of resources such as textiles and minerals. Cornelius aligns the destructiveness of the global economy with the psychological fabric of this one enterprising woman.
In the mother’s choice to adopt, Cornelius evokes a familiar feminist position: that of reproductive choice. But it is implied that her self-determination is a privilege not extended to the birth mothers of her children. The irony is not lost on Cornelius. It is a core critique written into the play.
However, some uncomfortable questions remain: Does the mother symbolise the psychological drives of Australia’s colonial past, its mining of the land, as well as the exploitation of human lives for economic gain? It is an absolutely valid portrait and critique of Australia’s meanness, yet I was left feeling slightly unsettled by it. Why a woman? And, why a woman who has chosen a non-biological family?
On this front, Cornelius doesn’t offer an easy resolution. We are supposed to identify with the mother, or at least recognise her attitudes in ourselves. She wants to do good, but is inevitably bound by the system of privilege she is a part of. She’s convinced she has a very big heart, and as a nation, we are operating under the same misconception.
At times, I empathised with this mother, who is shown to endure all the ordinary labours and difficulties associated with caring for others. I don’t especially identify with her wealth and power, which are beyond the reach of most Australians. Yet, we are all still complicit. Cornelius is right in thinking it behoves us to examine this deep-seated belief in our collective “generosity”.
Big Heart will be staged at Theatreworks, Melbourne until September 21.