Belvoir St Theatre, March 24
Excellence costs. A nine-year-old piano virtuoso might never know the joy of childhood friendships, and many a family has been neglected by a brilliant parent. What of the brilliant foreign correspondent? What might be the cost there? Sally Sara has routinely been that person for the ABC, including spending 2011 intrepidly covering the war in Afghanistan.
That experience cost her a breakdown, which, in 2016, resulted in beginning this play. It’s her first, but you wouldn’t know it. The narrative she’s hewn from raw autobiographical facts and her imagination builds in such an assured way that you’d think drama more her natural domain than interviewing Taliban fighters.
We first meet her protagonist, Suzie (Sheridan Harbridge), in Kabul, being visited by an old journalist chum, Bec (Amber McMahon), who’s penning a profile on her. Their breezy banter is encapsulated when Suzie says of the many single men in the hotel where foreign media are housed, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” Meanwhile their exchange is punctuated by a bomb blast and small-arms fire that are loud enough to have you ducking for cover. Twenty minutes in and Suzie is back in Sydney, although it turns out it takes more than an airline ticket to leave the Afghanistan experience behind.
Harbridge plays Suzie with gathering intensity, winding and unwinding her limbs in spasms of tension that are the thoughts she can’t express. She initially inhabits a character who thrives on her own bravado, and whose only rules of engagement are to “honour the dead, and not make the situation worse”. She believes she has rammed a cork into the bottle of her emotions tightly enough to keep the plight of child amputees, shrapnel victims and the rest at bay. “I think I’m pretty good at trauma.” she says.
Wrong. The longer she keeps the cork of cool professionalism in the bottle of being human, the more the pressure builds. When the bottle explodes, all that cost it totalled up, and pours from the bravely committed Harbridge in a climax that is devastatingly affecting.
The other actors in Anne Louise-Sarks’ exceptional production are like the members of a musical ensemble supporting a soloist’s tour de force. McMahon as Suzie’s friend and especially Toni Scanlon as her mother both craft characters of almost infinite patience and care, when Suzie’s tin ear to the trials of those closest to her would test many. They are prepared to be bulwarks between her and the world, if she is prepared to let them in. Completing the support network is Atal, whom Suzie befriended in Kabul, and who seeks refuge in Australia. While Mansoor Noor is investing the character with great warmth, Sara is mildly sniping at Australian immigration policies towards those whom it has ensnared in war. Deborah Galanos completes the cast as the psychologist whom Suzie treats like a mental health terrorist.