Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George contains a song titled Children and Art, about legacy, progeny and the creative urge. It could stand as an alternative title to this magnificent new play about Sunday Reed, her great loves and the mark she left on Australian art.
Playwright Anthony Weigh has taken key facts of Reed’s life – her deep love of husband and fellow art patron John; her tempestuous and fateful affair with painter Sidney Nolan; the establishment of Heide as a crucible of Australian modernism – and spun a complex and moving portrait of a woman who railed against conformity and tradition, but was snagged on matters of the heart.
Weigh opens with Sunday (Nikki Shiels) alone in grey against a brutalist grey background, a long narrow abstract painting in tones of yellow and green above her. Soon her adopted son Sweeney (Joshua Tighe) enters, and the simple conversation that follows (concerning some paintings being removed from the house) deftly establishes the play’s central themes – of childrearing and homemaking, of incubation and paternity, of provenance and ownership. Children and art.
The works are by Nolan (Josh McConville), who comes years earlier to the Reeds’ house in Heidelberg as an impoverished artist at the beginning of his career. He is there to see John (Matt Day), but it is Sunday who challenges, cajoles and teases him, accusing him of performing his impoverishment to win favour with the influential couple. In no time at all, Sunday convinces Nolan to move in with them, and the dream of an artists’ colony is born.
It’s at an exhibition of European masters a year later at Melbourne Town Hall, however, where Sunday and Nolan really begin to build a joint vision of the kind of art they want to see and make, the kind of life they want to live. With great skill and economy, Weigh sketches an image of Melbourne in the interwar period as stuffy, ossified and dour, what Patrick White would call the “dun-coloured realism” of Australian cultural expression. And he convincingly pits the Reeds and Nolan against this orthodoxy, as free spirits in the bohemian mode.
What follows is a potent journey into hedonism and licentiousness, although Weigh and director Sarah Goodes wisely steer clear of extended displays of debauchery and focus instead on the minute tensions and niggling doubts that threaten to undermine the idyll. The play’s pacing in the first act is languorous and seductive, almost Chekhovian. All the while, it is building the powder keg that will explode in the second act.
For all its scope and expansiveness, Sunday is really a taut three-hander, and the central actors acquit themselves superbly. Day is so like the real John Reed the effect is uncanny. Lanky, gentle, kind but also quietly exasperated, he suggests a man who loves so deeply he’ll follow his wife into total dissolution. John’s sexuality was more complicated than displayed here, but his profound dedication to Sunday is spot on, and incredibly moving.
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McConville is wonderfully bewildered in early scenes, as Sunday runs rings around him, but grows in stature and fortitude as Nolan’s star rises. His portrayal of a man both bruised and beguiled by this rude, charismatic woman is refreshingly free of cliche – there’s little of the brackish swagger we usually see in depictions of male artists of this period. More thematically than dramatically significant, and perhaps slightly underwritten, are the roles of Joy Hester (Ratidzo Mambo) and her son Sweeney, although the actors manage to bring them vividly to life.
Of course, there’s no play at all without Shiels, a performer of such poise and luminosity it becomes almost physically impossible to look away. This Sunday is irascible, mercurial, snobbish and unstable, but Shiels also makes her loyal, noble, sincere and empathic; like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, her contradictions heighten her humanity, giving her a three-dimensionality the other characters simply cannot match. It’s a world-class performance.
In fact, it’s a world-class production, led with complete assurance and precision by Goodes and her creative team: Anna Cordingley’s set design, initially harsh and modernist, blossoms into full Romanticism as the play tilts toward the elegiac; Harriet Oxley’s costumes are smart and telling; Jethro Woodward’s sound design is detailed and responsive. And in a work so dependent on descriptions of light and colour – that particularly Australian green that Sunday and Nolan realise can only be accessed via yellow – Paul Jackson’s lighting is beautifully rich and warm.
At one crucial point late in the play, Sunday refers to Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings as “my children”, as if she had literally given birth to them. Nolan is incensed, but surely a part of him has to acknowledge her role in their inception. Many artists would pass through the doors at Heide, from Arthur Boyd and John Percival to Charles Blackman and Mirka Mora, and Sunday would support, inspire and mother them all. Australian art owes her a great debt, the debt a child owes a parent. This grand, masterful play brings her back to shimmering, incandescent life.
Sunday is on at Southbank Theatre, the Sumner until 18 February