The controversy of a mid-pandemic Australian Open currently playing out across the news stations is a reminder of the place of tennis in Australia’s self-mythology; what the sport symbolises at home but also how it identifies the nation internationally. In Sunshine Super Girl, Andrea James tells the story of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, a trailblazer in tennis throughout the 1970s.
Beginning with Evonne’s (Tuuli Narkle) childhood in regional New South Wales, James’s script traces her early rise up the ranks in local and state competitions before her first overseas tour and, eventually, Wimbledon. Told in a fluid realism style, Evonne narrates her life story with asides personified with an ensemble (Luke Carroll, Jax Compton, Katina Olsen, Kyle Shilling). This structure is relaxed, more like a conversation than a formal biography as Evonne recounts important milestones and memories. However, the chronological, episodic style easily becomes stale and repetitive with very little opportunity for dynamic dialogue or sustained character development outside of Evonne. This kind of structure works well to get information across but struggles to build a world.
As the central figure, Narkle carried the production well, playing Evonne with a sophisticated reservation that didn’t overshadow her sweet charm. Much like Goolagong Cawley’s playing, Narkle makes it all look rather easy. She was also well-supported by her ensemble from Carroll who played her lecherous coach Mr Edwards to Shilling as Evonne’s ever-supportive husband Roger Cawley. Compton provided a lot of humour for tennis fans as they portrayed recognisable greats like John Newcombe and Martina Navratilova.
Choreography by Olsen and Vicki Van Hout added a lot of movement to Narkle’s monologue with the ensemble dancing around her. At times they recreated the movements of tennis, including the ball flying through the air, or sometimes they moved more abstractly in step with the emotional beats of the script. The choreography worked best when recreating a tennis match or training, when the dance could mimic the motion of play or the use of ballet-esque movement could add a sense of ease to a player like Margaret Court. Otherwise, the choreography did feel like compensation for the form, displaying how the subject of a professional athlete was at odds with the largely monologued narration.
The set design by Romanie Harper recreated a tennis court, of course, in the centre of Sydney Town Hall but with projections designed by Mic Gruchy and lighting by Karen Norris, the court was transformed into a riverbed, a disco dance floor, and a family home throughout the production. This use of projection drew on the sentimentality of a biographical script, materialising the spaces of Evonne’s memories out of thin air. At other times the projections were more metaphorical, placing Margaret Court atop a rotating diamond to intimate her treasured status in Evonne’s thoughts, for example.
For tennis fans, particularly those after Goolagong Cawley’s generation, Sunshine Super Girl is a great crash course in the player’s legacy. It’s an earnest tribute to the first Indigenous woman to win a Grand Slam and one of the few mothers to win Wimbledon when she did in 1980. While the story touches on the controversies of her career, including her participation in the South African Open in 1972, it aims to tell a complete story of Evonne’s career and her extraordinary talent.
Sunshine Super Girl ran at Sydney Town Hall from January 8th – 17th as part of Sydney Festival
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