Belvoir’s My Brilliant Career opens with a birth. The moans and screams of a woman in labour overlay a cheeky, self-reflexive declaration to the audience from a young woman with bursting red curls: ‘This is not a romance.’ This opening is no coincidence, rather director Kate Champion establishes the battle of the play: between a young woman’s hunger for success and the ever present antagonists of her world – poverty, marriage, and the knowledge that she must choose one to escape the other.
My Brilliant Career follows the life of a country girl coming of age at the turn of Australia’s 20th century. Sybylla, played by Nikki Shiels, is a girl characterised by her uncontainable mind and distaste for marriage and the limits of womanhood. After receiving a surprise invitation from her wealthy grandmother, she is whisked away from her family’s poverty to Caddigat, a beautiful estate where she must learn to be a ‘lady’ and meets a potential romance in the young man down the road, Harry Beecham.
Kendall Feaver’s theatre adaptation of Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel is filled with comedy, yet Champion manages to carefully avoid romanticising or trivialising Sybylla’s life throughout, engaging thoughtfully with the realities of her time. The set paints Sybylla’s world as a dismal one, bearing only a square of hard-wood floors, simple brown leather chairs, a metal pail and a piano, with the occasional addition of a plain white curtain to symbolise her escape from poverty to her upper-class grandmother’s estate. Sybylla’s world is brightened by her imagination: a floor to ceiling banner of a sunset drops dramatically as she dances with Harry, or she’s projected onto the curtain lying down in ecstasy at the leftover feeling of his hands on her.
The show’s quick pace often allows the dualities of Sybylla’s life to be presented simultaneously – such as the way her father’s rash shooting of a cow in the opening scenes interrupts the bounding joy of her childhood. The production’s thoughtful depiction of romantic interactions is conscious of its context, as they are intentionally awkward and sometimes uncomfortable to watch, neither completely consensual nor completely absent of pleasure.
Without ignoring the darker realities of Sybylla’s life, the show glows in its comedy. Shiels artfully captures Sybylla’s clumsiness, playfulness and impulsivity in the most entertaining way. Embodying her spite for hesitation, she hurls an apple at a wall or capsizes a boat with both her and Harry in it, imagined in the ensemble drenching them both with buckets of water.
However, it occasionally felt as if Shiels slipped in and out of maturity at odd moments – losing her bumbling limbs, sarcasm and country accent for a more refined and upper-class presence that one would expect to develop gradually throughout the play.
Despite this, the accompanying cast’s performances, all double or triple-cast, had a fluid cohesion and gentle earnestness that made the show easy to watch, allowing its comedy to flourish. Particularly interesting was the way Champion’s direction allowed the women to be in their bodies on-stage without pretension, un-ladylike and realistic, reflecting their lives as working women and shying away from the performed femininity some period pieces seem to evoke.
Champion’s My Brilliant Career looks for the light in Sybylla’s story and finds it in her wit and brilliantly defiant mind – a light that fades by the second-act as her possibilities dim, but returns in its final moments as she writes centre-stage illuminated by the hopeful golden light of sunset. It’s not a romance, yet this production manages to imbue Feaver’s script with a lively, joyous energy that fills you up as you watch.
My Brilliant Career plays at the Belvoir Theatre until the 31st of January. For more information, and for tickets, go to https://belvoir.com.au/productions/my-brilliant-career