Narratives about fathers and sons have dominated the canon of great plays for centuries. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Miller: these men, and their oft told tales of struggling patriarchs, are still staged internationally today. Male playwrights, directors and actors have for so long taken up all the space in the cultural conversation. Plays are designed to show us new perspectives, yet men have always held the majority, both on our stages, and behind them.
That’s partly what makes The Almighty Sometimes so refreshing. Griffin Theatre Company’s latest production is a powerful and devastating depiction of a teenage girl living with mental illness and her relationship with the mother who cares for her. This impactful and compelling production features a cast and crew filled with highly capable women doing some of their best work. Directed by Lee Lewis (the artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company) written by first time playwright Kendall Feaver and consisting of two female leads playing a mother daughter duo, this show represents just how far things have come in the Sydney theatre landscape.
It was only 2012 when The Australia Council’s Women in Theatre report found that, of Australia’s eight biggest theatre companies, 21% of shows had female writers, and only 25% had female directors. However, since then things have changed for the better, due to more socially conscious decision-making on behalf of our country’s artistic directors. Sydney Theatre Company’s 2018 season of sixteen plays had ten female writers and six directors, and in Griffin’s recently revealed 2019 season, four out of the five plays are written by women.
The Almighty Sometimes is not alone in its thematic focus on women, mothers, and female empowerment, from distinctively female voices. Earlier this year, we saw the Sydney Theatre Company stage Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s feminist exploration of the lives of women and mothers in 1980s Britain, staged with an all-female cast and directed by Sydney Theatre Company resident director Imara Savage. We also saw Belvoir St Theatre produce Single Asian Female, which focussed on the relationship between a Chinese mother raising her daughters in Australia, directed by Claire Christian and written by Michelle Law. The artistic directors of our theatres have made a conscious decision to showcase more work by women for women with women- and the audiences are thanking them for it.
The Almighty Sometimes is the story of Anna (Brenna Harding), a teenage girl who has been medicated for a range of mood and behavioural disorders since she started seeing a psychiatrist aged eleven. Since her father’s death ten years ago, Anna’s only close relationship is with her mother, Renee (Hannah Waterman), a fiercely protective woman who is battling mental health issues of her own. Renee’s whole life revolves around being a mother, and everything she does, she does because she cares.
Now eighteen and all grown up, Anna wants to make her own independent decisions like all her schoolmates. She wants to grow up, have sex, get a boyfriend, quit her job, see the world, move to Auckland and stop following her mother’s rules. While these desires seem harmless enough, to top it all off, she wants to live a life free of the intense regime of medications she’s been on since childhood. Torn between an impulse to protect Anna, and a willingness to let her make her own mistakes, Renee struggles with Anna’s newfound sense of independence. Feaver’s play provokes many powerful moral questions about parental agency, how we as a society treat people with mental illness, and whether we are medicating our kids too much.
The cast of The Almighty Sometimes bring this story to life with beautiful authenticity and care. Harding and Waterman have incredible chemistry; the characters have been through so much together and you really get the sense that they’ve known each other for years. As Renee, Hannah Waterman brings great desperation and sadness to the mother who cares so much it hurts. It is a stunning portrait of a mother who has given up her life to care for a daughter who no longer needs her. Brenna Harding is an impressive young actress who breathes life into an incredibly complex character with naturalism and skill.
The first thing you notice when you enter the intimate SBW Stables Theatre is the all-white set: white floor, white walls, complemented by a minimalist white table and chairs. I was immediately reminded of Sydney Theatre Company’s 2015 production of King Lear, which applied a similar muted white aesthetic to great success. The Almighty Sometimes can be anywhere and anytime- a bedroom, a kitchen, a hospital, a psychiatrist’s office, a rooftop. It’s this grounding in non-reality that speaks to the universality and timelessness of the play.
Dan Potra’s monotonous set design works well with Daniel Barber’s abstract lighting – with bright, vibrant colours that wash over the entirely white set. Consistent with the non-realistic set, these strong, bold colours (red, green, blue, and pink) act as a visual representation of Anna’s moods. For example, blue, Anna’s least-favourite colour, is used as a wash in moments of sadness like the breakup scene. These garish washes are also deployed when Anna’s emotional state is heightened or disturbed. In these moments of mania, sound designer Russell Goldsmith deploys non-diegetic high pitched frequencies. This increases the suspense of the audience and provide an auditory representation of the tension of the characters.
Feaver is strikingly tuned in to current events, and her debut play exhibits a sophisticated flare for storytelling. One of the most powerful elements of this play is the complexity of the characters: they’re real, fascinating, complex people with well-developed arcs. Like all of us, these characters have their strengths and flaws; they make bad decisions with good intentions, do stupid things they’re not supposed to. Feaver has a talent for making us as an audience see a bit of ourselves in all the characters, we sympathise with different characters at different moments.
And that’s the beauty of this writing; no one is right (and at some stage, most people are wrong). There are no right answers and no easy solutions. Everyone is trying their best, and their best often isn’t good enough. It’s messy, honest and painfully beautiful.
The purpose of art is to tell stories that we wouldn’t hear otherwise, so to encourage empathy, so that we can all be better people. Even though mental illnesses affect one in five Australians in any year, so much stigma still permeates our society’s understanding of them. Stories about those suffering, and the carers responsible for their wellbeing, are less told than they should be. I applaud Griffin for investing the time and money to tell these stories.
The relationship between a parent and a child is complex and fraught with love. In The Almighty Sometimes, Feaver and Lewis combine the timeless story of a mother/daughter bond with the highly topical issues of mental illness and over-medication to produce a brave and compelling new Australian work.