Townsville Bulletin - Townsville Eye - - Arts -

IW O R D S : f there’s one thing al­most ev­ery­one can re­late to, it’s the stress and angst that sur­faces dur­ing a Christ­mas spent with fam­ily.

Award-win­ning Aus­tralian play­wright Barry Dickins has cap­i­talised on that com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence with his lat­est work, Gert and Bess, which has its world pre­miere in Townsville next week.

“Ev­ery­one’s had a bad Christ­mas Day, I’m sure,” Dickins says.

“Fam­i­lies some­times don’t love, and they don’t kiss you when you come in the door. It can be cold and aus­tere as op­posed to cry­ing with de­light from see­ing you again.”

Set in the Mel­bourne sub­urbs in 1954, Gert and Bess is part com­edy part tragedy ex­plor­ing the of­ten tense re­la­tion­ship of two sis­ters.

It was writ­ten specif­i­cally for lo­cal theatre com­pany Theatre iNQ af­ter a chance meet­ing with artis­tic direc­tor Terri Brabon and pro­duc­tion man­ager Bren­dan O’Con­nor in his home city of Mel­bourne.

“I had a one-man show run­ning in Carl­ton about Ron­ald Ryan, who was the last man hanged in Aus­tralia,” he said.

“Terri and Bren­dan were com­ing to see my play. They knew me by rep­u­ta­tion, but we had never met.

“We ran into each other in Ly­gon St. I was with the ac­tor in my play who was a friend of Terri’s so he in­tro­duced us and we got on im­me­di­ately.

“Af­ter­wards, Terri asked if she could com­mis­sion me to write some­thing for their theatre com­pany, and I said yes.

“I was al­ready think­ing of this story about Gert and Bess.”

The in­spi­ra­tion for the story came from Dickins’ ex­pe­ri­ence as a child spend­ing lots of time with his grand­mother Gertrude and her favourite sis­ter Bess.

He says their roller­coaster, love­hate re­la­tion­ship was some­thing that had al­ways fas­ci­nated him as a child, and he rel­ished the chance to bring it to life into some­thing that ev­ery­one could re­late to.

“They were so sweet and in­tel­li­gent and funny. But some­times, even though I was six or seven, I could feel there was some sort of ten­sion be­tween them,” he said.

“They didn’t out­right ar­gue with each other but they’d sort of nig­gle.

“They would swing from that to ex­treme friend­ship. On a cold win­ter’s night they’d sleep to­gether to keep each other warm. “But you’d still hear them ar­gu­ing. “A lot of sis­ters are like that, where they tor­ment each other and then the next minute they’re brush­ing each other’s hair and peel­ing ap­ples to­gether or some­thing. I wanted to cap­ture that sort of un­rea­son­able­ness.”

The story took on some ex­tra grav­i­tas for Dickins dur­ing the writ­ing process. Af­ter the death of their mother, Barry’s brother was go­ing through her old sheet mu­sic and stum­bled upon a photo of the real Bess’s son, who died when he was two years old – an event that had a last­ing ef­fect on her.

For a play that’s so per­sonal, Dickins says he’s had no prob­lems hand­ing it over to Brabon and the cast to bring it to life. He says the story is in ex­cep­tion­ally good hands.

“I came up to Townsville in Au­gust for a week of rewrit­ing with Terri and the ac­tors. Terri was mak­ing lots of sug­ges­tions and I liked her ideas. I re­ally liked the way she was think­ing,” he said.

“Al­though we didn’t know each other very well, we were on the same wave­length. She was also laugh­ing a lot dur­ing the read­ings and that meant a lot to me be­cause I want the au­di­ence to laugh.”

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