This week’s archive feature goes deep into the work of two icons within the Melbourne independent theatre scene; the award winning and internationally acclaimed writer-director duo, Dee & Cornelius. Their world premiere of Big Heart was presented at Theatre Works in 2017.
An examination of privilege, the family unit, multiculturalism and the complex relationship between parent and child, Big Heart tells the story of a wealthy but childless woman who adopts five babies from Vietnam, Nicaragua, Sudan, Bosnia and Australia, with the belief that she can use her privilege to offer them a better life.
“I want to live life well. I want to be involved,” the play’s Matriarch declares, “to be hands on, to experience the day to day. To deal with real flesh and blood. To invest, absolutely, in someone who needs me. And who I will love unconditionally. I have no doubt that I will make an excellent mother”
We first meet Mother as an older woman, an only child who was afforded every luxury in life – luxuries she now believes it is her duty to pass on to the children she has hand picked from around the globe. She promises them nothing but the best; access to the best schools, free rein to travel and experience the world; and a life absent of poverty, abuse and neglect.
As the children grow, moving into adolescence, and then ultimately into adulthood, a true sense of belonging is never fully achieved. Their distinct personalities begin to clash as competition develops, sexual taboos are explored, connection with birth parents are sought and varied attitudes to race, gender and class come to a head as each child inevitably outgrows the material comforts they have been offered. Littered with moments of catharsis, joy and sinister realties, Big Heart, places Australian identity at the centre of a cross-examination of Western exploitation and opportunism.
Cornelius, who won the illusive and celebrated Windham-Campbell Prize in 2019, is widely recognised for her passionate representation of the working classes. In Big Heart, she deviates somewhat from her typical thematic scaffolding.
“People love the gritty stuff – and I do, too – but I haven’t always written that, and you can be rather pigeon-holed,”
Despite the deviation in subject material, Cornelius’ enduring quality to shake up the status quo and force us into a place of discomfort remains palpable and persistent. In an interview with The Age, Cornelius goes on to articulate her drive behind the writing of Big Heart:
“The idea [of taking a child from each continent] is a theatrical base to explore notions of family, of citizenship, and grappling with identity… It’s a study of ‘us’; Australia as a microcosm…It’s an old leftie comment but that makes us uncomfortable – the idea that one country’s poverty is our gain. There isn’t anybody, once aware of it, that couldn’t feel some discomfort about that global inequity, let alone the class inequity in your own country…. I want to say what a shit of a country we are, what a racist, unwelcoming country.”
As a duo, Susie Dee and Patricia Cornelius have been making work together for over 30 years. They are perhaps best known for their a fearless approach to theatre-making, and recent multi 2016 Green Room award winning production SHIT.
They first worked together as actors in Cornelius’ play, Lilly and May in 1986. Dee recalls:
“We started at Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre and ended up taking it around Australia and the world over the next three years – just us and a pram… Patricia co-founded Melbourne Workers Theatre in 1987 and a few years later asked me to direct her play Max – that’s how I started directing.”
Lily and May was later adapted into Love, which along with SHIT, was presented at the Teatro Biennale in Venice last year. This theatrical double bill marked the first occasion that an Australian team had been invited to present theatre at the exclusive festival. A write up in The New York Times described the productions as “superb.”
For a gorgeous insight into the admirable and enduring partnership of these industry greats, click the link below and read the following feature exploring the history of their ongoing working relationship and friendship.
Big Heart was met with considerable acclaim and was recognised with four nominations at the 2018 Green Room Awards for Best Production, Direction, Writing and Set/Costume Design, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Award for New Australian Playwriting.
Critics were similarly glowing, albeit at times confronted by the prickly and unflattering representation of Australian attitudes to globalisation and multiculturalism. Many praised the ensemble, the physical staging, Marg Howell’s sprawling design and Dee’s theatrical vision.
“What a superb piece of writing, so magnificently realised. Big Heart should be mandatory viewing in an ever-burgeoning multicultural Australia. It is undoubtedly one of the year’s best offerings – theatre as it should be – challenging, controversial and highly entertaining.”
“A perfect choreography of audio-visual harmony unfolds as chaos tinges the story itself. Bodies move through the stage strategically and symbolically. No movement is made in vain. Visually speaking, the play is exquisite. Storytelling-wise, it is audacious and marked by conflict.”
-The Plus Ones
“The long working partnership of Dee and Cornelius continues to look at the unexamined aspects of life and to unsettle, which I love. Big Heart – an irony in itself – will linger in your thoughts, as it does for me. Recommended.”
“This elegant production pivots around Swifte’s sympathetic but blinkered centre, with five adult actors – Daniela Farinacci, Elmira Jurik, Kasia Kaczmarek, Sermsah Bin Saad, and Vuyo Loko – playing the children to stylised choric effect.”
“The dialogue is tightly written, at times humorous with many moments of poignant observation, most especially when it comes to mothering issues and the need of teenagers to distance themselves from their parents.”
Big Heart was commissioned by the University of Southern Queensland, and was developed with assistance from the Australia Council for the Arts, Playwriting Australia and the Australian Cultural Fund. The team involved with the Theatre Works production season are listed below:
Set and Costume Designer
Sound Designer & Composer
Production / Stage Manager
ANDREA SWIFTE, DANIELA FARINACCI, KASIA KACZMAREK, VUYO LOKO, ELMIRA JURIK, SERMSAH BIN SAAD (SURI)
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