Brisbane Festival and Performing Lines: Unspoken by Rebecca Clarke
Also Sydney (Seymour Centre, August 30 to September 16) and Parramatta (Riverside Theatres, September 20-23).
“I’m coming home,” Rebecca Clarke shrieks, delightedly, at the start of Unspoken. And, indeed, she is... professionally speaking. Clarke is performing, this week, at her alma mater, Queensland University of Technology, where she studied acting. And she’s doing the rounds of Queensland’s regional arts centres in August.
Unspoken is an outstanding piece of autobiographical story-telling -- vivid and emotional -- without ever quite cutting it as a fully-formed and polished piece of theatre.
Back at the beginning
I found a place on the metal bow of my dad’s boat
A place that held the sun inside of it
even as the night crept in
In that place
I dreamt about the someone
who would first see my budded body
the someone who would carry me
I dreamt about the family I would have
The people I would meet
The love that I would speak
The doors that would open up
I dreamt about the places I would see
and the cities that would swallow me
I promised myself to be untouched
Pure as the moon above
the old world saw me curling there
a tiny girl with a big head full of dreaming
holed up inside her father’s boat
And the old world said
“Let’s show this girl a kind of love she’d never think of”
And when the darkness finally closed round me
chasing me back to my house
I didn’t know that from that moment on...
Nothing would be the same again
Everything would be new
-- Rebecca Clarke (Unspoken, 2005)
That lack of shape and polish might not matter except for the fact that Rebecca Clarke states, in program notes: “It’s important to note that the story is inspired by my experiences, rather than being a literal representation of events and people.”
Unspoken is a decade in the life of Sweetie (Clarke, left) from the night she learns that her mother is pregnant with her kid brother Julian, to the night Julian’s heart stops beating in a hospital’s intensive care unit.
At the age of 15, with the birth of her severely disabled brother, Sweetie finds herself “responsible” for the first time.
Unspoken is also the story of a small coastal town girl lifting her sail to catch the winds of destiny, wherever they may drive her. Looking for meaning. Looking for love. Begging to be born and bundled up. She tries tongue kissing, cigarettes, university, sex and travel.
Word for word, Unspoken is a fine script. Poetic, allusive, rich. Playful too. Clarke weighs and plays with her words -- expressions like “cabin’s kitchen” and “my budded body” -- like a newcomer to the language.
Her story is profound and profane. Her baby brother Julian “skids” into the world “on a stream of poo” as if it were the most glorious entrance any baby could possibly make.
She tells us of her parents, red-eared with embarrassment, holding hands, when they announce that the have a new child on the way. Later, she talks about being “scented with her want” before losing her virginity to the boy she calls The Clown. “He’s as honest as he can be,” she says. Wise words from someone so young.
But the churning machinery of Unspoken’s plot looks like an add-on, a graft, a Frankenstein implant. Repeatedly, and bizarrely, her boyfriend is likened to her kid brother: The Clown’s lip “stitched and meaty” -- split in a fight -- is likened to Julian’s harelip; their respective inabilities to communicate; their need to be held above water; their dead weight in her arms.
References to the old world, and Sweetie’s need to sail across it, flap loosely like semaphore flags -- they invite interpretation but thwart it -- when they should be adding momentum to the narrative like spinnakers.
Clarke’s enunciation and projection need work. I was certain she was calling herself “Sweedie” and had to ask director Wayne Blair what her character’s name was. Likewise, “I dream of Danny” (the dreamboat) sounded perilously like “I dream of Daddy.” This, I’m guessing, was unintentional! (Sweetie shows no such interest in her father!)
We believe Clarke’s tears and anguish when they come, they’re honest enough, but they’re so hard won. (Was it Virginia Woolf talking about Joyce, in Ulysses? That he smashed windows, but wasted so much energy doing it.) And the emotional crescendo doesn’t go close to eclipsing the part of the play where country girl gets to the big smoke.
The teen at uni stuff -- where her smile stretches across her face like it could break -- is quite miraculous. “I long to be the sunshine in his hang-over Sunday,” she says, glittering, about a boy she’s just met. Days of Leonard Cohen love letters and nights of Toga parties... This stuff shakes our hearts more than the rest of the play combined.