I’ve long admired Tom Holloway’s work, not least the way he writes. Ever since I saw Love Me Tender at Belvoir in 2010, I’ve been struck at the muscular and yet beautiful and poetic way in which he uses words to create pictures, how he writes and uses punctuation to create characters, how the characters speak, how the dialogue sounds, how the play works, the inherent rhythms and repetitions that are built into the play itself. I love the way he fragments and fractures speech, cuts it up into bits, chucks it amongst these crazily beautiful lyrical snatches and creates these haunting word pictures which you cannot shake from your head. Yet, underneath the language is a tender and rather large beating heart which especially comes through in his latest play, Forget Me Not, a co-commission from Belvoir and Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse Theatres.
When Belvoir announced their 2013 season, I initially thought this would be like Oranges and Sunshine on stage. And the premise indeed sounds similar: “Gerry is almost 60, and he is going to meet his mother for the first time since he was three. His daughter Sally has had it up to here with him and his problems. The old lady lives somewhere in the
according to the records. So Gerry is going there to find out what made him who
he is.” But the comparison actually does Holloway’s play a disservice, in that
it hints at a bureaucracy and governments that betrayed their people. What the
play does, instead, is show the personal struggle with trying to reconcile who
you are with who you think you are, who you thought you were. And it’s not
lightly that I make the claim of this being one of the most harrowing and yet
simultaneously beautiful pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.
The set is a simple almost-squareish (revolving) platform in the middle of Belvoir’s corner, covered in floorboards, a table, chairs, armchair, lounge, bookshelf, drawers sitting on it, a threadbare rug. It is a simple room, a humble room, a room that doesn’t ask anything of itself, doesn’t proclaim anything other than what it is – a humble living room. As the play progresses, the room becomes ruined and emptied, just as Gerry’s journey progresses and gathers momentum. The two facts are not unlinked, however, and their interconnectedness, their significance, only adds to the play’s harrowing beauty.
The child migration scheme is perhaps one of the less publically-well-known episodes in our nation’s history, one that from 1947 to 1967 saw the arrival of around 7000 ““orphans” [who] were promised a life here of exotic animals and sunshine,” writes Delia Falconer in a recent book review in The Australian. “On arrival, many were separated from siblings, sometimes forever, and transported to isolated private institutions that were little better than forced labour camps. Unregulated, these were a paradise for predators.” While this ultimately forms the backdrop for Holloway’s play, it is nonetheless crucial to its development and story. Essentially, “the British government [colluded] with non-government agencies to save on orphanage costs and boost the white population of its colonies by deporting […] children, some as young as three, across the world without their parents’ consent. The average age was eight.” Gerry was three when he was taken from his mother, Mary. And for the next sixty-odd years, never once did she stop thinking about him, nor making him a cake on his birthday, writing to him, wanting to see him again.
Holloway’s story is in no way biographical of any one child migrant, though they are acknowledged in the play-text’s thank you page. Instead, and fittingly I suppose, it is the story of an every-person, a common story that represents the child migrants’ story. It’s not a definitive depiction in any way, nor does it quite convey the magnitude of the scheme’s devastation, but it doesn’t need to; the devastation is internal, inside the children-cum-adults, and it is with Holloway’s great skill and deftness that the story is as moving and beautiful as it is. His Gerry, played with bluster and restraint by Colin Moody, is a man whose predilection to drink has caused a rift between his daughter, Sally (Mandy McElhinney), his (now deceased) wife, and himself. “[He’s] a bloke who finds out that he’s a damaged individual who discovers that his literal name and his birthdate are not his,” Moody said in an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. It’s a story of “generational damage,” a “universal tragic theme of some kind of societal f---ing disconnect with humanity.” Gerry’s mother, Mary (Eileen O’Brien), is a tremendously determined and fierce Liverpudlian whose conversations with her son are all-at-once awkward, bittersweet, tender, and ever-so-slightly surreal; the play’s ending explains in what sense I mean this, even if I refuse to say here. Oscar Redding, as Child Migrant Trust-worker Mark, provides a kind of narrative glue that propels Holloway’s play forwards, trying to help Gerry – just as much as Mary, and Sally – see the truth of what really happened all those years ago.
In her Director’s Notes, Anthea Williams (who directed Old Man Downstairs for Belvoir last year) talks about the play being about the nature of family, and through the play’s quartet of characters, asks “if you [grew] up without love, is it something you can learn?” The final moments of the play are, in this regard, a resounding affirmative answer to this question, even if their context is heartbreakingly raw. By setting it in the present day, and not sixty-odd years ago, Holloway – and the cast and crew – have created a prism through which we can take a look at ourselves, at our own lives and relationships with our parents, and try and fix things if we are able. Perhaps fittingly, I keep thinking of the line in The Beatles’ song The End – “in the end / the love you take / is equal to the love you make,” and how it applies to Gerry, his relationship with his wife and daughter, his mother; how he sees his world.
I sobbed throughout a large portion of the play’s eighty-minute running time, but it is by no means a bad thing. I was not alone in doing so, either; every so often, you’d hear a sniff or muffled sob from somewhere in the audience and you knew everyone else was feeling the same was as you. And by the end, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. Going home though, it wasn’t catharsis or a release that I felt, but an anger at how the play was even written, and nothing to do with Holloway’s abilities by any stretch. How can you take a child away from their family and send them halfway across the world? How can you tell a child, however old, their parent(s) are dead, they have to start again, a new life, and move on? How can you justify it, personally, politically, governmentally? Who decided upon the policy in the first place, why are we only know beginning to understand the magnitude of what happened? And it’s not just with the child migrants scheme, either. Williams tells the story of a late-night conversation with her counterparts in
Liverpool about the audience’s
need for background on the play’s context, how much would each audience
instinctively know about the removal of children into institutionalised care.
“How tragic,” Williams says, “to have to explain that taking children from
their families and communities is one of our national [experiences]. And it’s
not a lesson from which we’ve learnt. As detention centres across Australia […]
fill with asylum seekers, we’re still demonising those in need. We’re still
trying to replace community and family with institutions.” It’s not a
comfortable thought, nor should it be, but perhaps with works like Holloway’s
play, and Jim Loach’s Oranges and
Sunshine (and the book that informed it), we can begin to understand just
what happened, become aware of what happened to the ‘Lost Innocents,’ try and
comprehend what we can do, as individuals and as a nation, to address the
Like a lot of the plays I’ve seen so far this year, Forget Me Not is not an easy one to digest, but it is certainly beautiful, and is filled with a heart that could so easily have been missing, have been hidden under layers of vitriol and bile. Instead, what Holloway and Williams (and the rest of the cast and crew) give us, are a “series of raw [and] achingly beautiful conversations between members of a scattered family. Forget Me Not is one man’s precarious bid to finally learn what it means to love.”
Theatre playlist: 11. Let The Rest Go, Lisa Gerrard & Marcello De Francisci