There’s a phenomenon often discussed amongst women where you reach a certain age and suddenly become invisible. Because you’ve passed through the three layers of societally recognised womanhood, (ie virgin, desirable, mother), you’re no longer relevant or worthy of attention. In this new show, creators Jonny Hawkins and Nell Ranney turn all the attention to older women and pay tribute to their stories in a conglomerate homage character named Maureen the Harbinger of Death.
Maureen is in her eighties and lives in a crumbly, dusty apartment in old Kings Cross. She lives with her two companions, an adopted cat and Persephone, a painting gifted by a friend, but she welcomes visitors with Jatz. The set design by Isabel Hudson immediately captures the bonded relationship between Maureen and her space with great drapes of burnt velvet waterfalling down the walls, across the floor, and absorbing Maureen and her furniture into its luxurious pattern.
Hawkins as the writer and solo performer embodied Maureen’s spirit through a conversation about her past including the history of the Cross, her day to day life, and, most importantly, her incredibly accurate ability to know when someone is about to die. With her little notebook, Maureen has listed all of her friends in the order she predicted them to pass. She regaled the audience with stories of the handful she was there to witness and thus conveyed the central message of the production about death, dignity, and not denying the presence of death in life (or vice versa).
Amongst all this dark humour, Maureen also aired her thoughts about women’s narratives and the necessity of rewriting the ones that don’t serve us, like Persephone’s, for example. While the perspectives of women like Maureen are often dismissed as outdated or overly conservative, Hawkins reminds us of the value of experience, something Maureen has had plenty of and something that shouldn’t be ignored so quickly.
The structure of this production was deceptively simple with Hawkins bookending the piece as himself and the remainder functioning as a conversation with audience response and a special helper from Sydney Festival staff to light Maureen’s cigarette. Lighting designer Nick Schlieper used dark blue tones and heavy shadow to signal when Maureen slipped into nightmares or intrusive memories. This gave the production another slight air of mysticism amongst the ghostly painting, the little black notebook, and the reams of velvet. Direction from Ranney seemed light which allowed the star of Maureen to breathe but kept the pacing sharp. Hawkins and Ranney developed a remarkably relaxed, comfortable atmosphere in Maureen, especially considering the heavy subject matter.
For a production that so resembles an hour-long catch-up with your gran, Maureen was a deeply moving discussion of life and the dark unmentionable bits. The affect was expertly balanced between joy and sadness, hope and regret, and the audience left feeling truly impacted by Maureen’s brief presence in their lives. Simple but excellent, true storytelling.
Maureen: Harbinger of Death is running at the Seymour Centre from January 15th – 23rd as part of Sydney Festival
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