Image from The Chosen Vessel, by Australian Classical Theatre

“It’s as gripping as any contemporary thriller, and steadily ratchets up the tension to the white knuckle level…” — John Bailey, The Sunday Age

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The Chosen Vessel

Dealing with themes particular to Australian women, these stories portray the dark underbelly of bush life, revealing the horror yet remaining lyrical and full of striking imagery.

A scene from The Chosen Vessel

The Story

‘Chosen Vessel’ is the collective title for stage adaptations of three short stories by Barbara Baynton that have a gothic intensity and a strong maternal instinct.

Baynton’s characters are often victims of ugly poverty and man’s inhumanity to woman. In A Dreamer, a young newly pregnant daughter journeys to the house of her youth. Lost in a storm, her sense of foreboding is dispelled by the ever-present voice of her Mother. Her rite of passage from child to woman is completed upon arrival, as she is greeted by strangers, mourners at her Mother’s bedside. Her journey from Daughter to Mother now begins.

In Squeaker’s Mate, a hard working woman is bed-ridden following an accident and unable to prevent her ‘mate’ squandering all that she has and bringing home a younger, fertile new woman. However, her stay is short lived—as indeed is the mate’s, future—as neither reckoned on the woman’s dog.

The young wife and infant in The Chosen Vessel are left alone by the shearer husband to cower in terror as they are visited by a dangerous stranger; and a sole passer-by, stirred by his own epiphany, sees nothing untoward.

A scene from The Chosen Vessel

Production

The Chosen Vessel was developed with assistance from the Hothouse Theatre’s A Month in the Country residency program. It played a three week season at Theatre Works in November, 2007, as part of their company initiative program.

Each of the three short stories is given its own unique style by the company of three actors. A Dreamer is predominantly a one woman show as the young girl narrates her own journey through a gothic fairy tale nightmare dressed in a red riding hood cloak. She is supported in this by the remaining actors, one the voice of the mother guiding her on, the other becoming the disparate characters she meets on her way.

Using nothing but three chairs for the many obstacles nature places in her way, and a bath for the creek into which she falls, the language and evocative lighting paint the picture. Upon her arrival at the house, sodden and weary, the whole style shifts into an abstract dance-macabre until she finally reunites with her now dead Mother.

For Squeakers Mate the company makes a radical departure from its usual modus operandi, turning all of the narrative prose into dialogue. This leads to a stark telling of the tale with the characters’ actions driving the story forward with little narrative explanation of their motives. Three slatted flats are moved around the stage to create the various settings, as the invalided wife battles the atrocities heaped upon her. In contrast to the couple, the younger woman’s arrival brings with it a stark red modernity to the costuming, in anticipation of the blood that will be let. Long passages of silence accompany the woman’s solitude punctuated by a curlew’s cry.

The Chosen vessel uses the slats of the flats to create a noiresque lighting plot that catches only half the dark deeds of the house. Again, long stretches of silence create the atmosphere of lonliness and vulnerablility as the stranger paces around the outside of the house looking for a way in. The denoument, involving Hennessey, uses the recurring image of the cross and the virgin and child to underpin the violence of the Mother and child’s end, ignored by the passer-by in his Catholic reverie.

The whole story is told word for word by a female narrator from the back of the audience, witnessing the action but unable to affect it.

A scene from The Chosen Vessel

Reviews & Interviews

John Bailey, The Sunday Age

Barbara Baynton has only recently rated more than a footnote in the official history of Australian literature, but her short stories are as evocative of the bush life as anything Lawson or Paterson ever penned, and a good deal darker…

It’s as gripping as any contemporary thriller, and steadily ratchets up the tension to the white knuckle level… Knight’s chilling screams as her husband drags her broken body by one ankle are as searing and immediate an experience as live theatre is able to provide.

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Cameron Woodhead, The Age

Baynton’s women, in the words of Louisa Lawson, ‘share almost on equal terms with men the rough life and the isolation’ of the bush. But they have it tougher. In these grim, gothic tales, they have to endure the worst kind of mistreatment by men…

The Chosen Vessel—a chilling story of rape and murder that also examines the destructive power of the myths that cling to women under the male gaze—is given a more classical noir interpretation. Its satirical finish strengthens rather than undermines the horror of the crime… The originality and modernity of Baynton’s bleak imagination is faithfully rendered, and the stage is richer for it.

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Anne Crawford, The Age: Interview

Theatre director Stewart Morritt knew when he was four or five growing up in a Yorkshire pit village that a life spent working in the coalmine was not for him. One day he would escape.

Half a world away and several decades later, Morritt came across the works of a kindred spirit: Barbara Baynton, a literary contemporary of Henry Lawson, had fled a harsh life in the Australian bush…

‘I love it that she’s so dark,’ Morritt says. ‘Obviously she’s writing from a very personal space, which makes it such good literature, the psychological depth, the emotional style,’ he says. ‘That fear, that landscape of danger that came with the isolation of the bush in the 1890s, is now a very urban reality’…

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