Stage adaptation of Cold Light comes to The Street Theatre

Kiki Skountzos, Tobias Cole and Sonia Todd in Cold Light. Photo: Shelly Higgs
Kiki Skountzos, Tobias Cole and Sonia Todd in Cold Light. Photo: Shelly Higgs

 There's a line in Cold Light, something about Canberra being a city of many parts - the nation's capital, a big country town, and, for many people, a place of exile.

Most people have their view about our town, whether they live here or not. It's a hard sell at the best of times. Indeed, when author Frank Moorhouse took the idea of a third novel in the Edith Barry series to his publisher he was met with that very reaction.

"I remember going to my publisher at the time, Jane Palfreyman, at Random House," Moorhouse said.

"I told her that the third book was set in Canberra in the 1950s and she stared at me and said, 'Do you have a stronger pitch than that?'"

But it was a story waiting to be told, the story of a city, and a young woman, neither of whom did quite what everyone expected them to.

And now the 700-page novel, published in 2011, comes to life, with The Street Theatre production opening on March 4.

The development of the stage adaptation is a story in itself, an idea first floated during the Centenary of Canberra in 2013, over martinis at the Hyatt. Centenary creative director Robyn Archer and The Street Theatre's artistic director Caroline Stacey championing a work they knew would have something to say about Australian history, about women, about relationships, about politics. Their search for the right playwright to bring it to life, Moorhouse's insistence on it being a woman, and Alana Valentine blowing everyone away with her ideas. Their search for the right actor to play Edith and everything falling into place once Sonia Todd was cast.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind, rehearsals, costume fittings, set design, actors getting to know their characters. Caroline Stacey is bursting to get this play on stage.

"I've been asked many times if the rest of the world wants to have a story about Canberra?" she said, taking a break from directing a Saturday morning rehearsal.

"My response has always been is this is a story about our nation, about our identity, about where we've enabled people, and where we haven't.

"The one thing about Canberra, among many great attributes, is that it is outward looking.

"And it doesn't just look out to the rest of Australia but to the world and this work really puts into sharp focus what it means to have vision and ambition and for a nation to support that in its people."

She's incredibly proud that the production is being premiered in Canberra, by a local theatre company.

"It's a gift and a privilege and it's amazing to be able to bring this story to life here with the community we have here.

"I can't put it any other way, I feel like it's a work of significance for us as an organisation because it pushes us forward, just as Canberra, and Edith, were pushed forward."

She calls Moorhouse "a champion of Canberra", citing many of his works that count to the popular national narrative. She says Valentine presented such a compelling understanding of Edith and the story in terms of Australian history and where it sits in time.

"This journey became one of the suffocated visionary in a way," Stacey said. "A woman who arrives from Europe, full of skills and confidence and ability, and the social mores and the setup of the time don't support her in her ambition of becoming a female ambassador so she has to reframe her context as many women have to do, even now.

"It's a journey into the art of femaleness and the reframing of context on a continual basis.

"That narrative was a really strong and compelling journey to go on as a company. At the street we really look for stories that engage with ideas of the world we're in, the politics of the world we're in, of people, of people of difference, diverse perspectives. Thats critical for us.

"This play contained not only a way to position Canberra in a way that's not always seen but … bigger than that there's a call to action in the work, to take the provocation of what does it mean to make the world a better place, and what do you respond to as a person.

"I hope people leave thinking they can make a difference."

For as much as this play is a story about Canberra, it's Edith's story too. Sonia Todd, a veteran Australian actor of stage and screen, beloved of Australian television audiences thanks to her roles in McLeod's Daughters and Police Rescue, said the role was like a "siren call" to her.

"For any actress to play somebody who is multi-dimensional, who really seeks her place in the world, seeks to be part of the world, to make the world better, to improve it, to change it, to have an impact on it, who's so sure of her own gifts and what she has to offer, is very special."

She's slipped out of the eloquent costumes, designed by Imogen Keen, and into her civvies, but there's still some of Edith's passion in her as she talks about how hard it is for women of a certain age to land parts as big as this one.

"The problem can be what do women do with their passion when they get 40, 50, 60? Where do you put that passion, that explosive energy? Are women just expected to go away quietly and quilt?"

I ask her if she thinks she'd be friends with Edith, if say, the two had met over cocktails at a Parliamentary party.

"I think I'd be a bit over awed by her," Todd said. "I'd be worried that I wouldn't be able to keep my end of the conversation up.

"As an actor I've been fortunate enough to play some characters, quite a few, that are much better people, much more intelligent, much bigger and brighter, than me.

"I think I'd be fascinated by her if I met her in real life. She's the sort of person that people would like to be around because she's able to facilitate things in the world, she's able to make things happen, able to draw people together, able to maneuver without people feeling manipulated.

"She's very mercurial in that way, in a good way too, because she has such a good vision for the world."

Cold Light, adapted by Alana Valentine, based on the novel by Frank Moorhouse, opens at The Street Theatre on March 4. Until March 18.

This story Stage adaptation of Cold Light comes to The Street Theatre first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.