Last night, I was lucky enough to go to a premiere. Not like the shitty premiere of that movie you went to last week, but a worldwide premiere of an Australian play. I know, I know, you don’t really like plays and theatre and stuff. But this one made me think of you.
Gert and Bess by Melbourne playwright Barry Dickins is a personal look at the relationship between his grandmother and her favourite sister. It was funny, it was heart-wrenching, and it caused some serious inner reflection on how you and I can love and loathe each other simultaneously. Set in the Melbourne suburb of West Preston in the mid-50s, Townsville wouldn’t really spring to mind as the first choice of location to premiere the production. But if you know how well-respected and extremely talented Theatre iNQ is, it’s completely understandable that Barry would happily write a play specifically for the company.
I’ve already witnessed both Arminelle Fleming (Gert) and Kellie Esling (Bess) on stage this year in Alice in Wonderland and Frankenstein respectively, however their roles in this performance are the ones that will stick with me the most.
Both actors are immaculate in their roles as Gert and Bess, truly aging and angering beyond their years to become morbid and unintentionally malicious toward one another. I’m sure we all know people like this pair and you’d be sure to smile as the quick-fire lines bring some old memories bubbling back to the surface.
While both actors complement each other well, they are also each given their own time to shine; with Bess (Kellie) reducing to a heap on the floor remembering her dead baby, and Gert (Arminelle) taking pause to reflect on the relationship with her ailing (or already deceased) husband.
Sitting in the theatre, watching the two women shine for an hour and 45 minutes, you’ll question if you are in Townsville –the calibre easily compares to professional metro productions, and Arminelle and Kellie are leading examples of that high calibre. There is no comparison to draw here though, because Theatre iNQ will always be in a league of its own: a league that Barry recognised, entrusting the premiere of a piece incredibly close to his heart to the North Queensland troupe.
There was a wonderful moment where Gert’s meager Christmas Tree toppled over, that we can’t quite pin as intentional or accidental. If it were intentional, it added tremendously to Barry’s sentiment of the two sisters being kicked while they’re down; and if it were accidental, the lines that Arminelle and Kellie fired off deserve to go down as some of the greatest in theatre’s improv history:
“Ah Fuck! (fixes tree) It looks worse rejuvenated”
“Everything looks worse rejuvenated”
The pair’s delicate rituals of making a cuppa or setting the table together are a sweet reminder of the ways in which we grow to work together, even if we don’t notice doing it. Gert and Bess celebrates the little moments of being family that we all take for granted, and gave us pause to reflect on the ways we often speak most carelessly to those we love the deepest.
The wild imaginations of the duo also let elements of innocent childhood playfulness shine through – from enacting calling the ambulance on a banana and performing the role of phone operator with the bedroom karaoke essential, a hairbrush – and showed the pair had been playing and fighting from a very early age.
There were so many points of the play that brought a tear to my eye or a smile to my face, and made me think of you, Sister. There aren’t too many people in the world who you could be ready to tear shreds off one minute, and protecting with all your might the next. Gert and Bess is a celebration of one of the most precious types of relationships in the world; one that has certainly evolved over the decades, but which will never lose its integrity. I love your guts, you little shit.
I must say, Gert and Bess has arrived in Townsville at such a fantastic time in the theatre community: the play is very much a female Australian take on Waiting for Godot, which graced the floorboards of the Old Courthouse only months ago; and now Sarah and I have been fortunate to sit in on two Australian plays this week – this, and Full Throttle Theatre Company’s Summer of the Aliens. Both were written retrospectively and inspired by growing up in suburban Melbourne. It’s been an interesting activity to see the history of our nation through two playwrights’ eyes, and to connect the dots with our own experiences of the ‘Aussie Battler’. Australian’s have done it tough over the years, but through it all we’ve fostered a curious sense of humour that is captured most beautifully and sensitively in both pieces, especially Barry Dickins’.
It was nigh on impossible to find fault with the production, because we walked out with smiles on our faces and incredibly full hearts. Some of the political and social references of the 1950s were lost on us; but the delivery and timing of each line made it clear that a punch line was being dropped and the hollering from older members of the audience assured us it had hit its mark.
Theatre iNQ always deserves high commendations for attention to detail. The set was incredibly simple but perfectly reminiscent of an Aussie living space from the 50s – and the projection of images and home videos over parts of the performance made it all the more moving.
Sister, you would have loved this show. Arminelle, Kellie, Barry and Director Terri Brabon have crafted what I am sure will become an iconic Australian piece, studied by everyone from schools to professional companies alike, and which I hope will tread the stages of Townsville venues again in years to come.
Gert and Bess is an honest, hilarious and loving look at a since-forgotten generation, and which made me so proud to have a sister. You stink.
Lots of love (in my own fashion),
Gert and Bess will be performed by Theatre iNQ at their rehearsal space on Allen Street from now until 19 November. The complete season has sold out, however you can click here to be added to a waiting list.