Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre’s latest offering is the world premiere of Summer of Harold, a trio of cracking comedic plays about adventure, obsession and hope from award-winning playwright Hilary Bell. Comprised of two monologues and one two-hander, this powerful new work explores the transformative power of everyday objects, starring Berynn Schwerdt and Hannah Waterman.
For director Francesca Savige, the opportunity to work with Bell was irresistible describing her as one of Australia’s finest playwrights. “When I was lucky enough to be a recipient of the Sandra Bates Director’s Award in 2017, I directed a play-reading of Hilary’s, Wolf Lullaby,” explains Savige. “The play is absolutely brilliant and Hilary was extremely generous with her time in conversation with me about her script. I knew she would be a wonderful person to collaborate with. A great artist and a lovely human being. Developing a new Australian play is such a treat – it should happen more often!”
The Ensemble Theatre gave the creatives time and space to get some actors in the room to develop the three short plays that comprise Summer of Harold. Savige says this development period was invaluable with everyone having a blast getting to know the characters and their journeys.
“A room full of artists telling stories, laughing and having intense discussions about words and ideas makes for a deeply creative and productive space! The way Hilary absorbs ideas and refines text with such intelligent consideration is testament to her vast experience and talent. It’s a gift to be in a room with her. After development, the three short plays -or playlets as I like to call them- – were almost completely ready as a final draft, so we were able to hit the ground running when we began rehearsals. This is not always the case with new works – sometimes huge re-writes can be happening right up until opening night (and sometimes beyond). I think it’s really important to give writers the financial support and time needed in development of new work. It hugely benefits the writer, the script and the consequent appreciation of an audience. For me, the chance to work at the Ensemble theatre again was very exciting – the place has been very special to me since my time with the Sandra Bates Award. I love this company and this venue. They have a true appreciation of all the creatives and crew and behind the scenes people who make the show go on, it feels like a big supportive family. I’m very grateful to Mark Kilmurray for trusting me when I was first emerging as a director. And the theatre is on the Kirribilli harbour – its a pretty dazzling place to go to work (or to go see a show).”
Savige explains that the three plays of Summer of Harold explore differing relationships to material objects over three individual stories – Each playlet introduces us to a character or characters whose lives have been impacted by significant objects. The objects in the plays are like so many in our own lives – they can be special, unusual, treasured, talismans, valuable, priceless, irreplaceable, beautiful, ugly or ordinary- It’s all about the meanings they hold for us – what importance we place on them. They are informed by our memories and associations of them. And how their significance informs our lives can be for better or for worse, but ultimately their power only exists in our minds.
Bell is a graduate of the Juilliard Playwrights’ Studio, NIDA, and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and writes for stage, radio, screen and musical theatre. Savige’s admiration for Bell’s talent is clear describing Bell as having an extraordinary mind and a beautiful way with words. “I honestly don’t know how she does it, but I love it! She has a way of writing seemingly so simply and accessibly but her dialogue is deeply nuanced and powerful. Her mastery of storytelling is superb, and her understanding of comedy is delicious. We’ve had so much fun bringing her words to life. The plays are very funny. And also moving- she’s treads the line so cleverly.”
An incredibly intimate show for Savige, who has never directed a play with only a cast of two before…. And two of the three playlets are predominantly monologues.
“Often we were rehearsing with just one actor, the stage manager and me in the room. Quite a small and intimate rehearsal room! The challenge of this is that it demands focus from the actor for long durations without the stimulus of bouncing off the energy of another actor, which we sometimes take for granted. But the benefit is the detail you can achieve and our cast rose to this challenge. And then when we came to the rehearsals of the third playlet – a duologue- it was joyful to see our two brilliant actors sparking off each other. Hannah Waterman and Berynn Schwerdt had worked together some years ago and when they came together for this rehearsal process, they immediately had a great stage chemistry and working symbiosis. I loved seeing their playfulness and ability to go deep quickly. That old adage that directing is 90 percent casting is true… When you get such a dynamic duo as these two, sometimes you just get to sit back and watch the magic happen. This third playlet – the duologue – is called Lookout and is set in the Blue Mountains. In the final week of rehearsals we had a cast excursion to rehearse the play in situ. We rode the train (like the characters do in the story) and did a hike to a Lookout. It was a magnificent sunny day and we had a fantastic time while also getting to know the play in a completely experiential way. We finished the day with a meal and a drink in Leura which was just perfect.”
Savige trained in acting and directing at the Queensland University of Technology, and furthered her studies at RADA (UK), and Shakespeare & Company (US) and has participated in stage, film and TV. A CV which, amongst other things, includes Shakespeare and drama heavies like The Crucible and A Doll’s House, Savige says she loves comedy. “I love exquisite and refined comedy – as in Hilary’s work in the three playlets, and I also love bawdy, baldy, ridiculous and absurd comedy. Shakespeare, Comedia Del Arte, Farce, Comedy of Manners… my partner is French so I’d love to have a go at a Moliere one day!”
Summer of Harold explores the theme of the significance of objects in our lives – the power they can hold over us or how they inform our life for better or for worse. Savige believes audiences are going to have a great night of theatre – they are going to have three very different stories to reflect on and might find themselves discussing objects in their own lives that have held meaning (or power) over them. “I hope they laugh a lot, are moved a little and think about good memories as they head home.”
September 8 – October 14