Playwright and actress Kate Mulvany is bringing to the stage her most personal work, writes
OTWENTY-FIVE years earlier Mulvany had lain in a Perth hospital, desperately sick with a rare childhood cancer that left her with an uncertain future. When her English godmother Tessa gave her a gift, the bestselling children’s book Masquerade, she says she found reason to hope. She would carry it with her throughout what she refers to as “my rather roller-coaster ride of a life” as a talisman of courage and comfort. The book was also the reason she became a writer.
Masquerade’s British author was Kit Williams, an eccentric, ageless artist with a bushy beard, eyes that wandered in different directions, tattoos he had inked himself during his years in the merchant navy. His book’s extraordinary international success had driven him to become a recluse, but now, waiting for her to alight, the wizard-like man in corduroy pants was about to welcome Mulvany into his life, inviting her to share her story and his role in it.
It’s a story that will, with Mulvany’s hand, form the centrepiece of the Sydney Festival in January in a stage adaptation for Griffin
September 27-28, 2014 N a stiflingly hot English summer day, playwright and actress Kate Mulvany sat nervously in the carriage of her train as it approached the tiny station of Stroud, in Gloucestershire. As the train pulled in, she had an overwhelming sense her whole life had led to this moment. Waiting for her on the platform was a stranger who more than two decades ago had irrevocably changed her life. Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Her Masquerade is about to come full circle.
Born in the West Australian crayfishing town of Geraldton, Mulvany was only three years old when she was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumour, a cancer of the kidneys. It was a bitter blow for her parents, who learned that the cancer was a result of her father’s exposure to Agent Orange when he was conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War. The young Kate spent seven years traipsing between hospitals in Geraldton and Perth, enduring rounds of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and the inevitable broken bones that were an unfortunate byproduct of the chemicals’ potency.
Visits from her beloved godmother were welcome, and the pair would spend hours together as Tessa read. Mulvany distinctly remembers the day Tessa brought in Masquerade. The young Mulvany had finished her latest round of treatment and was in traction with a broken arm. “I was so scared of hospitals by that stage. Any nurses or doctors who came near me, I was terrified. I still am, to some extent,” Mulvany muses. But as she lay listening to that book, something happened. The pain and sickness and needles and medication faded away, and in their place appeared Jack Hare, the bumbling rabbit tasked by his mistress the Moon to deliver a letter of love to her paramour, the Sun. Along the way the hare and his fellow messenger, the wise frog, encounter a host of weird and wonderful characters, including the Penny- Pockets Lady and the man who plays the music that makes the world go round.
Along with Williams’s exquisite, fantastical illustrations were riddles and other hidden gems, all waiting to be discovered by eager young eyes.
Better still, Williams had created a brilliant 18-carat gold rabbit amulet, complete with rubies, moonstone, citrines, turquoise and mother of pearl. He had hidden it somewhere in Britain and informed his readers the clues to finding it lay within the pages of the book. A small revolution was sweeping Britain as Masquerade fans dug up fields, parks and riverbanks, desperate to find the jewelled rabbit. The book would go on to sell more than two million copies, and the amulet was ultimately unearthed. But none of that mattered to Mulvany.
“Masquerade is about science, the celestial world, mathematics and imagination,” she says. “It covered everything I needed while I was in hospital, I got my education from that book. And on every page there’s a hidden rabbit. It’s difficult to find them, but once you do the feeling of exultation and accomplishment was something that just exploded my imagination and made those terrible times in hospital bearable. For both of us. Tessa suffered depression. She was bipolar and we lost her to that a few years ago. So the book was always a tribute to her whenever I read it. It brought comfort.
“In all honesty, I don’t think my hospital experience would have gone so well had I not had that imaginative escape. When you’re dealing
Kate Mulvany was introduced to the book by her godmother when she was seriously ill as a child