Not quite shining: Belvoir’s Radiance

Written in 1993, Radiance began its life on Belvoir’s corner stage, and after being produced around the country and internationally, and made into a film, this play about coming home comes home itself, just on twenty-one years later, to the place where it all began. Written by Louis Nowra, it is the story of three sisters – united by the death of their mother – as they gather together for her funeral after many years apart. Like so many theatrical stories of families, it isn’t long before the familial ghosts come out of the past and their reunion opens old wounds.

Set in tropical Queensland, the play takes place inside their mother’s house, on its shuttered verandah, and on the mudflats halfway between the house and the island across the water from it. On Dale Ferguson’s set, the house is constructed of dark wood, though the bright saturated light (Damien Cooper) filtering through the shutters gives it a lived-in-ness and lightness despite its claustrophobic feel. The mudflats, downstage, with pooling water and a dark rippled floor simulating mud, are a space of freedom and self-expression in direct contrast to the house. It’s a dark set which seems incongruous with the full-blooded life with which the play bubbles and fizzes with, which explodes out of it in the final moments, but perhaps it’s in this juxtaposition – of the ugly reality of the sisters’ lives and childhoods against the light-drenched landscape they grew up in – that the play draws its power and potency, its vitality.
Directed by Leah Purcell, this Radiance feels a little subdued – a little less radiant – than it perhaps could or should be. That’s not to disparage the play or production, but rather the feel of it. The play isn’t an easy play to watch, but it is nonetheless powerful and moving, and it is a play which perhaps works better in hindsight, upon reflection, than in the physical experience of it, in the moment. Act One has a kind of slow-burning energy, a slowly-building momentum as the sisters return and reacquaint themselves with each other, a momentum which crests as the act ends and pushing us into the shorter and more powerful Act Two. Out on the mudflats, with nowhere to hide, the sisters’ relationships – with each other as much as the others in their lives – are laid bare and as the tension quickly builds, only to break and then crash down around them again, there is a kind of catharsis noted but perhaps only partly felt by the characters and us, the audience. The ending feels slightly truncated, as though there is another final beat missing from the play, a beat which would allow the sisters to part with dignity if not grace.
As oldest sister Cressy, Purcell is the quietest of the three but also the most worldly, the most experienced. There is a quiet power in her performance which is beautiful to watch, a fierce compassion and strength which doesn’t diminish as the play progresses. As Mae, the middle sister, Shari Sebbens is full of a resigned weariness and vague indifference, having nursed their mother through her final years. Yet there is a sense of phoenixing, of letting go, as they farewell their mother and the ‘rebirth’ hinted at in the final scene is powerful to watch. As the youngest sister Nona, Miranda Tapsell is full of a youthful fiery naivety, an optimistic idealised version of who her father was, though the truth comes hardest for her.
Determined not to make reference to the sisters’ race, the play was originally intended by Nowra and original cast members Lydia Miller and Rhoda Roberts to be performed by three female actors of any race; they are simply three sisters. The focus, as Nowra says in his notes in the program, is on the “emotional narrative [of] three family members who are strangers” to each other. It is not an issues-based play where race is used to make a political point, but rather a play where a situation gains resonances through its connections to the audience and race has no place.
A “classically simple play” (in John McCallum’s words), unadorned in its telling, that “celebrates the bitter stories of individual oppressed by past secrets and lies,” Radiance is still a moving play, nearly twenty-two years later, and deserving of its place in Australia’s theatrical landscape.

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