Sunday review – a masterful and moving portrait of a woman who railed against conformity

Southbank Theatre, the Sumner
This world-class production anchored by superb central performances brings Sunday Reed back to shimmering, incandescent life

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.

Nikki Shiels in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Sunday
Nikki Shiels in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Sunday. Photograph: Pia Johnson

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.

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.

Contributor

Tim Byrne

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Emilia review – a feminist take on the life of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady
The Australian production of this Olivier-winning play has been beset by problems, but it’s back on – with some stirring performances and clumsy moments

Sonia Nair

23, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Cyrano review – Virginia Gay shines in this bold, queer reimagining
Southbank Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company
After being scuppered by a snap lockdown in 2021, Gay’s highly anticipated take on Cyrano turns out to have been worth waiting for

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

13, Oct, 2022 @4:30 PM

Article image
A Christmas Carol review – David Wenham is a superb Scrooge for the ages
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne
This adaptation from London’s Old Vic is a night of pure theatrical warmth, with a performance of incredible clarity and generosity at its centre

Tim Byrne

19, Nov, 2022 @2:08 AM

Article image
I have always loved the theatre – but as a Vietnamese woman, it hasn’t loved me back
Growing up wanting a career on the stage, Julia Faragher quickly learned how limited her roles would be. A new production of Laurinda gives her hope

Julia Faragher

24, Aug, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Let the Right One In review – vampire romance is equally charming and disturbing
This stage production sits among the best adaptations of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, in which a lonely 12-year-old Swede falls for a centuries-old bloodsucker

Jared Richards

18, Oct, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Hubris & Humiliation review – this queer take on Jane Austen is startlingly good
Lewis Treston’s witty and polished play blends Regency language and Australian slang to deliver a dizzying amount of jokes and sizzling romantic tension

Cassie Tongue

26, Jan, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
The Lovers review – Shakespeare musical charms, but doesn’t always deliver
The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Bell Shakespeare’s first ever musical puts some pop into A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and it is good fun, if you don’t think too hard about it

Cassie Tongue

29, Oct, 2022 @2:47 AM

Article image
Monsters review – Stephanie Lake production is supposed to scare but sinks into silliness instead
This ambitious dance-theatre hybrid, about a woman searching for her missing sister, falls apart when the allegorical becomes literal

Tim Byrne

28, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Phantom of the Opera review – a grittier revamp of the timeless phenomenon is still a one-in-a-million treat
While a more sophisticated take on the classic set slightly dampens the spectacle of old theatre magic, it’s the music truly brings the thrills

Cassie Tongue

27, Aug, 2022 @3:35 AM

Article image
Queering the Iliad: the Brisbane show bringing big spectacle – and big love – to an ancient story
Two of Australia’s most visually inventive companies are reclaiming the romance between Achilles and Patroclus that’s been sidelined by history

Kelly Burke

31, Aug, 2022 @5:30 PM