Set in the staff room of an Australian girls’ school in 1938, Morning Sacrifice is a snapshot of the everyday concerns of the time including considerations of propriety and morality, a changing political climate, and the place of education in the globalising world. With the school’s reputation to uphold, any discrepancy must be held up, identified, and swiftly punished.
It’s nearly the end of term and everything is coming to a head: the annual inspectors are in, teachers are calling in sick or coming to school only to faint in front of their classes, and they must really decide what to do about Mary getting caught kissing her boyfriend at the school dance. As the bell keeps ringing and the day progresses, the goings on in the staff room range from petty gossip and complaints about working conditions to outright conspiracies and one physical confrontation. On the surface, Morning Sacrifice is a play about the mundanity of some 1930s teachers’ lives but underneath is a bubbling political concoction ready to spill over.
Geoff Cartwright’s direction capitalises on staff divisions between the more conservative and conventional set and the younger, more liberal teachers who wish to usher the new world into the classroom. Staging divides the sides between two tables used as working desks and safe havens when words get heated. Cartwright does well to weave intrigue between micro and macro concerns and, after a rushed opening scene, paces the production with a balance between minutiae and melodrama.
Over everything resides the hawkish presence of Miss Kingsbury (Taylor Owynns), teacher in charge and queen delegator described as simply “evil”. Other teachers fall into their workplace roles including head gossip and provocateur Miss Bates (Jen Davidson), the glamorista with questionable moral character Miss Carwithin (Maddie Boyle), and the new kid on the block Miss Ray (Evie McCutcheon). From the other room permeates the voice of the mysterious head mistress Miss Woods (Maxine Appel-Cohen) with a suspiciously good sense of timing.
It’s these two representations of power in Miss Kingsbury and Miss Woods when she appears, that forms the backbone of the production’s tension. Whether micromanaging the school day into suffocation or remaining a lurking presence throughout the action, these characters are the institution under which everyone else, teachers and students included, must fall in line and its this dominating force against which the outside world collides. Owynns very well captures the subtle passive aggression of Miss Kingsbury’s control while hinting to hidden jealousies that add an emotional intrigue to her characterisation. Appel-Cohen as Miss Woods is captivating in her monologues about the school and its role, accurately portraying the power of a head mistress speaking without becoming dictatorial.
Set design, also by Cartwright, is practical and cluttered like all good teachers’ minds with papers, workbooks, and teacups galore. The familiarity with which the actors navigated the space with its many chairs and tables, storage nooks and crannies, and specifically assigned coatracks added an air of relaxed realism to the performance that warmed moments of elongated mundanity.
The central conflict of the play, Mary Gray, and all of the secondary concerns sprouting from this one incident seem laughable in this day and age. But it’s an illustrative reminder of the deeply damaging restraints placed on women and girls to uphold not only their own standards but those of everyone around them. The teachers’ discussion presents a simplistic but not unfamiliar attitude towards consent and the position of women as society’s moral gatekeepers. The concern for Mary’s future including her career and dreams of college if the consequences of this incident are too severe maps easily onto similar situations women and girls face today when navigating the double standards of sex and sexuality. As much as times have changed in the last 80 years, so much remains the same.
Morning Sacrifice is running at Stella Maris College’s Star of the Sea Theatre from October 17th – 26th