Sunday Review – A witty and poignant portrait of a woman who denounced conformity | Australian theatre

sOne of Tevin Sondheim’s performances in the Park with George contains a song titled Children and Art, about legacy, offspring and creative stimulus. It could serve as an alternative title for this fine new play about the Sunday Reed, her great love and the mark she made on Australian art.

Playwright Anthony Wee took key facts from Reed’s life—her deep love for husband and fellow art patron John; her tempestuous and fateful relationship with painter Sidney Nolan; establishing Heide as a melting pot of Australian modernism – and weaving a complex, moving portrait of a woman who was critical of conformity and tradition, but had heart problems.

Weigh begins with Sunday (Nikki Shiels) alone in gray against a brutal gray background, a long narrow abstract painting over it in shades of yellow and green. Soon her adopted son Sweeney (Joshua Tighe) enters, and the simple conversation that follows (regarding the removal of some paintings from the house) deftly outlines the central themes of the play—parenting and childrearing, custody and parentage, and origin and property. Children and art.

The business is for Nolan (Josh McConville), who years ago came to the Reeds’ home in Heidelberg as a poor artist at the start of his career. He is there to see John (Matt Day), but it is Sunday who defies, slanders and harasses him, accusing him of performing his impoverishment to curry favor with the influential couple. In no time at all, Sunday convinces Nolan to move in with them, and the artist’s colony dream is born.

Nikki Sheils in a Melbourne Theater Company production on Sunday
Nikki Sheils in a Melbourne Theater Company production on Sunday. Photography: Bea Johnson

It’s at a European Gentlemen’s Show a year later at Melbourne Town Hall, however, where Sunday and Nolan really begin to build a shared 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 paints a picture of interwar Melbourne as claustrophobic, stifling and harsh, what Patrick White has called the “colourful realism” of Australian cultural expression. And he convincingly pits the Reeds and Nolans against this creed, as free spirits in a bohemian setting.

What follows is a powerful excursion into hedonism and debauchery, though Weigh and director Sarah Goodes wisely steer clear of extended displays of debauchery and focus instead on the subtle tensions and nagging suspicions that threaten to undercut the libido. The play’s rhythm in the first act is languid and seductive, almost Chekhovian. All the while, you’re building a powder keg that will explode in Act Two.

For all its scope and expansion, on Sunday It’s really taut in 3D, and the central actors exonerate themselves nicely. Today as the real John Reed and the effect is strange. Slender, gentle, gentle but also quietly angry, he suggests a man who loves so deeply that he will follow his wife in full dissolution. John’s sexuality was more complex than it appears here, but his deep devotion to Sunday was spot on, and incredibly moving.

McConville is wonderfully bewildered in the early scenes, as Sunday’s action rolls around him, but grows stature and steadfastness as Nolan’s star rises. His portrayal of a man both bruised and deceived by this blunt and charismatic woman is refreshingly free of the vulgar—there is a bit of the salty swagger we usually see in depictions of male artists of this period. More thematic than dramatic, and perhaps a little scripted, are the roles of Joy Hester (Ratidzo Mambo) and her son Sweeney, though the actors manage to bring them to life.

Of course, there is no play at all without Schels, a performer with such poise and radiance, that it is almost physically impossible to look away. This Sunday is quick-tempered, mercurial, cocky and unstable, but Shiels also makes her loyal, noble, honest and sympathetic; Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, her contrasts heighten her humanity, giving her a three-dimensionality that no other characters can match. It’s a world class performance.

In fact, it’s a world-class production, helmed by Judez and her creative team with utter certainty and subtlety: Anna Cordingley’s set design, initially stiff and modernist, transforms into full-fledged romance as the play leans toward elegance; Harriet Oxley’s fashion is smart and expressive. Jethro Woodward’s sound design is detailed and responsive. And in a work that relies heavily on descriptions of light and color — which Nolan’s Australian green is particularly aware can only be accessed via yellow — Paul Jackson’s lighting is beautifully lush and warm.

In one defining moment late in the play, Sunday refers to Nolan’s paintings of Ned Kelly as “my children,” as if she had literally given birth to them. Nolan is furious, but part of him must certainly acknowledge her role in her prime. Many artists were passing through the doors at Hyde, from Arthur Boyd and John Percival to Charles Blackman and Mirka Mora, and Sunday supported, inspired and secured them all. Australian art owes her a great debt, one that a child owes to its father. This wonderfully beautiful play brings her back to life, sparkling, glowing.

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