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The Shoe-Horn Sonata

by John Misto

Ensemble Theatre until June 26

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

So what is a “sonata?

According to Wikipedia, in music, it literally means a piece played as opposed to a cantata, a piece sung. The relevance of this distinction will become clearer later.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata, playing at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli, is a two-hander set in 1995. Using a multi-day television interview as the vehicle, we experience the reminiscences of two World War II nurses whose ships were sunk after the fall of Singapore and they were captured by Japanese soldiers. For three years they were detained in a jungle prison camp in Sumatra.

Until the end of the war in August 1945, they lived in primitive, desperate conditions. Only 24 out of an original 65 were eventually brought back to Australia in October, 1945. Many had drowned or been shot dead as they were being evacuated from Singapore. Others died of malnutrition and illness. Supplies sent to them by the Red Cross, including food and medicines, were withheld by their captors.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata was inspired by the most famous account of those experiences, the diary of Betty Jeffrey of the Australian Army Nursing Service, published as White Coolies in 1954. Playwright John Misto read the book when he was a teenager and could not forget it. Years later, he interviewed many of the surviving women as he researched the background for his play. In his notes, Misto wrote: “Although the characters of Bridie and Sheila are fictional, every incident they describe is true and occurred between l942 and l995. There was even a shoe-horn”.

Misto wanted to make Australians aware of the heroism of these nurses. He believed that it was disgraceful that, fifty years after that war had ended, Australia had still not set up any memorial to its army nurses, even though many of the Australian troops owed their lives to their care. He handed over all of the prize money he won with this play in 1995 to the fund to build such a memorial.

No wonder this work is so intrinsically powerful, but its strength can only be appreciated if the production is in the right hands.

Sandra Bates and Lorraine Bayly have reprised their roles from the 1999 Ensemble version of the play. According to Bates, “In the original production, we had to be greyed up (for the roles as older women), and this time, we had to greyed down”.

Bates, also credited with being the director, plays nurse Bridie Cartwright, a stubborn, opinionated, but kind-hearted Australian woman who is slightly older than her counterpart.

Bayly is English nurse Sheila Roberts, who was fifteen years old when she decided to serve in the war. Sheila had a “proper” upbringing in which her mother told her to always carry a pair of gloves.

Set in a television studio, the disembodied voice of interviewer Rick (Jamie Oxenbould), asks the women questions to prompt their reminiscences. Unlike Oprah, who has the celebrity sit in a chair while Oprah talks about herself, or ABC TV’s Leigh Sales, who, when the interviewee tries to answer a question, talks over the top of them to assert her own opinion, Rick’s interview style draws out the memories and, just as importantly, the emotions of the two women.

Bates is back on the boards for the first time in many years, mainly because she was so exceptional as the Ensemble’s Artistic Director for the past thirty years. She is excellent as Bridie, and Lorraine Bayly, who is best known to wider Australian audiences for her television lead roles in The Sullivans and Carson’s Law, is sublime. For actors, television is a very different medium compared with the live stage, and Bayly demonstrates that she is equally outstanding in both formats.

With Bates, you admire the heightened skill of the actor, and with Bayly, you live through every moment and every feeling that the character is experiencing. You forget that you are watching a play. Especially in the last scene of the first act, Bayly’s performance is as compelling, riveting and engrossing as it is intense. You can feel yourself being drawn in. At the intermission, I thought, “Where can it possibly go from here?” It had reached a crescendo. The second act, with further plot twists, consolidates the importance of this piece of theatre, and gives both actors room to demonstrate their emotional intensity.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a classic Australian two-hander that is so much bigger than just a play or just a production. As much as it’s about a significant part of our history, it’s about enduring human relationships, as brittle and at the same time, as strong as they can be.

This production of The Shoe-Horn Sonata, which is played and not sung or just spoken, is definitely worth catching.

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