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The Ghost’s Child

Astrid Francis

Sonya Hartnett’s magic realist novel, which questions the worth of life and the power of love, is adapted for the stage by director Sally Richardson.
The Ghost’s Child
On a cold and rainy night a strange boy appears at Matilda’s doorstep. She invites him in, offers him tea, and without knowing why, unfolds her life in lyrical recollection to him. The past becomes present in her sitting room as she shares the story of her fantastic voyages in search of the world’s most beautiful thing, and what happened when she eventually found it.

Sally Richardson (The Promise, The Drover’s Wives, Standing Bird) has taken on a huge task with this stage adaption of Sonya Hartnett’s magic-realist novel about Matilda and Feather, her ethereal lover. Exploring the theme of magic in life and love, Richardson has condensed the lyricism of Hartnett’s prose astutely, merging puppetry, movement and music to delve into the emotional territories of the characters. This is ably supported by Matt McVeigh’s design, including two large, rotating, opaque blinds which, in turns, reveal and conceal the action. Along with Jenny Vila’s lighting design, this brings forth shadowy, unknown depths and surprising hints of light to accentuate each character’s inner journey.

The composition by cellist and singer Melanie Robinson supports the story with song where the dialogue falls away. Robinson deploys pre-recorded tracks that enmesh with her live performance, delivering a score rich with romantic hope and melancholy, as well as acoustic, Foley-effects which fill the space with an otherworldly quality.

The Ghost’s Child is a challenging undertaking for all four performers, who double as minor characters and puppeteers as well as working the stage mechanics, in order to create the different planes of Matilda’s memories upon land and sea. As the story exists in two times simultaneously, where memories are remembered while they are created, a chaotic feel sometimes overtakes the space. There is a lack of visual simplicity on stage, as characters hover around each other, making it hard to give full attention to one time or place at any given moment.

Nicola Bartlett as the older Matilda is warm, down-to-earth and wryly humorous. While many of her memories are painful, she acknowledges they are the very backbone of who she is. Oliver Wenn feels too grounded and adult to be playing the young, peculiar boy, but as Matilda’s father his style is well suited to the aristocratic eccentric caught between respectability and the call to adventure. However, the characters of Matilda’s parents (Nicola Bartlett also plays Matilda’s mother) lack depth, which means their portrayal sometimes balances on the edge of cliché.

Dancer Kynan Hughes as Feather is playful and graceful while also finely harnessing feelings of entrapment and a longing for something beyond the physical plane, where Matilda cannot follow. Hughes also brings a precision to the ensemble physical scenes, which occasionally threaten to fall into disarray by virtue of the amount of stage ‘business’ required from all performers. I don’t doubt that with a longer running season or tour such scenes would be highly polished, but in their current form of development they appear a little unkempt.

The gravity of the piece is held together by Katya Shevtsov’s performance as the younger Matilda. She is light and joyous in her love for Feather; her physicality is controlled yet unbound, and she brings forth such heartache, which by turns is ugly, selfish and mean, while also lost, sorrowful and deeply burdened. Her anger in light of Feather’s fulfilment in solitude is very human.

Sally Richardson and her team have created a theatrical space to tell a story that explores the concept of imagination and conjures up the forever contested and cherished landscape of memory. It is exciting to see a nationally recognised director premiering work in the rapidly growing regional centre of Mandurah. Fans of Sonja Hartnett, and children between the ages of 9-14 who like a sophisticated fable, or anyone who loves an unapologetically epic romance, will all find something to like in this new independent work. If you fit this description but miss the season in Mandurah, keep an eye out for future productions. While a tour has not been announced, it is surely only a matter of time.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The Ghost’s Child
Based on the book by Sonja Hartnett
Direction/adaptation: Sally Richardson
Composer/performer: Melanie Robinson
Production Design: Matt McVeigh
Lighting Design: Jenny Vila
Production Manager: Chris Donnelley
Assistant Designer: Emma Craig
Cast: Nicola Bartlett, Katya Shevtsov, Kynan Hughes and Oliver Wenn
Co-Produced by Performing Lines WA & Mandurah Performing Arts Centre
Presented by Mandurah Performing Arts Centre

Premiere Season
28 September – 5 October
Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, Mandurah

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Astrid Francis is a Perth-based reviewer for Artshub. She has a background in theatre performance and has worked for a number of performing arts organisations and funding bodies in Perth. Rather than prop up the bar with her opinions after a show, she is now putting her criticisms on the page and into the ether to stimulate a broader audience.