The past few years has seen Australia rattled by revelations and testimonies of abuse suffered by children in the care of institutions whether schools, churches, or homes for juvenile offenders and abandoned children. Following on from Alana Valentine’s renowned script Parramatta Girls, Eyes to the Floor integrates memories from survivors of the Institution for Girls in Hay, NSW, where girls aged 13-17 who were expelled from Parramatta Girls Home and Cootamundra Girls Home were sent in the 1960s and 1970s.
Opening with a role-call style introduction of the six girls where they recite their rap-sheets, the cold and bleak setting for these girls’ suffering is quickly established. At the home they were required to perform menial, repetitive, and demeaning tasks with the sole purpose of keeping them occupied and oppressed. In addition, the girls were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by the authorities who were untrained and uncaring in their responsibility to their charges. Abuse ranged from degradation through humiliating haircuts and de-individualising uniforms to rape and severe beatings. The psychological scars of their treatment lead to debilitating mental illnesses for these girls as they grew into women and many have died as a result of their time at the Institution for Girls.
In his program notes, director Geoff Cartwright articulates the importance of productions such as this to participate in the grieving process for the lives lost to institutions like this, as well as challenging audiences to extrapolate the cruelty witnessed in Eyes to the Floor to contemporary settings of violence against women and girls which are continuing to be normalised. The women-heavy cast and crew speaks to Rough Hewn Theatre Troupe’s aim to centre women’s stories and increase awareness of the negative implications of misogyny under the patriarchy.
Set design, also from Cartwright, manifests the brutal conditions of the institution with industrial platforms and scaffolding devoid of comfort. Harsh, cold lighting, designed by Rachael Ewins, contributes to the stark atmosphere and emphasises characters’ monologues about the freezing conditions inside their cells at night. In moments of abstract dreaming, when characters turn inwards and Valentine’s poetic narrative voice pokes through, Ewins’s design is more dramatic, incorporating contrasting lighting states and bright red beams to add horror and a more visceral discomfort.
The girls in the institution are played by adult women and the choice illuminates the dissonance between the sensibilities of the characters, as representations of real girls, and the mental capabilities required to reconcile their situation. Viewing the cruelty enacted on adults and imagining children in the same circumstances adds gravity to these stories of strength and survival. Maddy Press as the precocious Fiona Hodges is subtle in her slow decline through mistreatment and abasement as elucidated in monologues articulating her inability to fall asleep. Marjorie Linnett (Maddie Boyle) offers a particularly troubling story of being forced into a psychiatric hospital because of her inability to cope with loneliness. Her interactions with Daniella Greaves (Izzy Hanly) where they learn to exact revenge through cruelty and mistrust of each other is a heartbreaking example of the ramifications for their abuse.
The two adult characters face off as opposing forces in the institution. Superintendent Naylor (Cartwright) is a brutal tyrant doling out punishments to serve a perverse need for power. Mrs Kay (DiAnne MacDonald) approaches the girls with more kindness, hoping to appeal to their humanity through religious instruction before they are ousted into the world. This kindness is short-lived, though, in a stomach-clenching moment when Mrs Kay chooses the side of wilful ignorance in the face of the girls’ pain. As difficult as she is to watch, Mrs Kay represents many well-intentioned citizens who have the option to refuse confronting their own cowardice.
Two characters, Gwen Gill (Jessica Willson) and Emma Abbott (Annika Bates) are Indigenous and are forced to negotiate the multi-layered abuse of being separated from their families and then institutionalised, but they find hope and solace in the possibility that they are sisters. In this production, Willson and Bates are not Indigenous actors, explained by Cartwright as owing to a lack of available Indigenous actors to fill the roles. While this is disappointing in any representation of Indigenous characters, it is particularly difficult to reconcile with the rates of incarceration of Indigenous women in Australia in 2019 when they are the most persecuted demographic in our society and they suffer the most at the hands of institutions established to silence them. There is room here to tell these stories better.
Written as an amalgamation of testimonies and creative reconstruction, Eyes to the Floor is a grim retelling of Australia’s not-so-distant past and our brutal treatment of the disadvantaged and “undesirables” of our country. Cartwright’s production is unrelenting in its coldness and cruelty; even with survival glinting on the horizon, the suffering lives on.
Eyes to the Floor is running at Star of the Sea Theatre from May 16th – 25th