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The Chosen Vessel: Interview

Australian Classical Theatre - a scene from The Chosen Vessel

Anne Crawford, The Age

An early 20th-century author comes alive in a theatrical adaptation

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.

Baynton was born in country NSW, the daughter of a poor Irish carpenter, although she claimed her father was a captain in the Bengal Light Cavalry, a fiction (one of many to come) that gave her an entree to polite social circles and a job as a governess. Three husbands later she was a wealthy woman who bought and sold antiques, had lived in London, gained a title, Lady Headley, and a literary reputation based mainly on her short story collection, Bush Studies, published in 1902.

Morritt has dramatised three of these stories. ‘She was driven. She’s an extraordinary woman,’ he says, clearly fascinated by her.

His company, Petty Traffikers, specialises in Australian classics, but Baynton is one out of the box. Unlike Lawson or Banjo Paterson, she doesn’t romanticise the bush, and sees only black humour in its characters.

Her stories, full of vivid imagery and menace, are gritty, sometimes violent and decidedly dark. Baynton twists the then popular themes of loneliness, isolation and danger in the Australian bush, portraying them from a female perspective.

‘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.’

And that’s how it will come across on stage—while Baynton’s prose is largely preserved, the costumes and sets are contemporary. No boiling billies or campfires.

Morritt spent nearly two years researching and adapting the stories, referring to the biography Between Two Worlds by Baynton'’s great-granddaughter, actor and writer Penne Hackforth-Jones.

Hackforth-Jones, who has discussed the play with him and is pleased her forebear’s works are being aired, is nevertheless proprietorial. She took exception to an opera based on the short story The Chosen Vessel (The Ghost Wife, by Jonathan Mills and Dorothy Porter) and ‘hated’ the film made about Squeaker’s Mate (‘a splatter movie’). Morritt will present both stories, and A Dreamer.

Hackforth-Jones spent 10 years writing the biography, unravelling Baynton’s lies, among them that she was related to Anne Boleyn and had ‘royal blood in her veins’. ‘One can see it,’ quipped one person Baynton tried to fool.

Hackforth-Jones credits second husband Thomas Baynton, a surgeon more than 30 years Baynton’s senior, with coaxing out the author in her. ‘Dr Baynton brought all the horrible stories out,’ she says. ‘She thought the bush was a cruel life for a woman.’

He gave her the security and encouragement to write, and the literary contacts, among them Bulletin editor A.G. Stephens, who promoted Henry Lawson.

So will the public be lured by the dark stories of the somewhat obscure literary figure? ‘Yes, it’s dangerous territory,’ Morritt enthuses. Just like Barbara Baynton’s bush.