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The Chosen Vessel: Review

Australian Classical Theatre - a scene from The Chosen Vessel

Cameron Woodhead, The Age

Bleakly original imagination, a rich addition to the stage

Petty Traffikers have a reputation for mounting successful stage adaptations of Australian literature. They tend to choose authors who have had a formative influence on the national imagination, with productions including Henry Lawson and C.J. Dennis. The company’s latest show, The Chosen Vessel, translates into theatre three stories by Barbara Baynton (1857-1929), the first Australian woman to write fiction under her own name.

Baynton is a fascinating figure. From humble beginnings, the daughter of Irish immigrant, she lied her way into polite society. During her first marriage, which ended when her husband ran off with the maid, she was a bush wife at Coonambie in Western NSW. And though she eventually married into the English aristocracy, it was Baynton’s experience of rural Australia that came to haunt her fiction. Her most famous book, the collection of stories Bush Studies, was written as a riposte to the romanticism of Henry Lawson.

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.

In Squeakers Mate, a capable woman (Margot Knight) runs the farm until she breaks her back in an accident. She is powerless to stop her lazy, abusive husband (Joe Clements) taking up with a pregnant girl (Chloe Armstrong). In the final scene, the woman’s only real mate, her dog, avenges its crippled master. It is a potent tale of sexual jealousy and a savage indictment of male neglect…

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.

And The Dreamer—in which a woman battles the elements to visit her mother—receives an imaginative treatment. A wild landscape is created; the protagonist clutches at switches of willow; bathtubs stand in for swollen creeks, and sheet metal for thunder. But these are the external manifestations of what is a brutal psychological journey, and the sound and fury abruptly depart, replaced by solitude and a devastating silence… The originality and modernity of Baynton’s bleak imagination is faithfully rendered, and the stage is richer for it.