By Barry Healy
Down Under Chelsea
By Mona Brand
Directed by Sharon Singleton
Stables Theatre, Sydney, until July 14
Reviewed by Barry Healy
What is the price which communists pay for their commitment? Are the emotional costs of political passion too high for mere mortals to carry? Playwright Mona Brand cuts deep into these questions in a play which moves back and forth between one night in the 1970s and a few months in 1949-50.
Activists from the Vietnam War era like to think that they are the only ones with glorious memories of a fiery youth, that those who once supported Stalin are all cynical and old-fashioned. Down Under Chelsea examines the heritage of those who were won to radicalism by the overturn of capitalism in Eastern Europe after World War II and shows that the issues of personal politics have always been there to be confronted.
The play revolves around the return of its protagonist, Leigh, to the London house which she shared with a group of politically active Australian friends during what they considered the halcyon days of revolutionary change, before the Khrushchev denunciation of Stalin. All of the group were either members or supporters of the Communist Party of Australia active in its British sister party.
The inarticulate struggles of people who considered themselves to be free-thinkers with the sexual politics of their era and the guilt-ridden choices they made thread their way through the first act. Overlaid are the enthusiasms of young people enjoying freedom and a taste of social change through their visits to Eastern Europe.
The bitterness of their collapsed hopes and the pain of justifying cynical career moves reach an emotionally charged conclusion in the second act. The cast are superb in tying together the elements of hope and anger which underpin the complexities of their characters.
Since the late '40s, Mona Brand has had 20 plays produced on stage, radio and television. Yet in this long career she has not had a play reviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald since 1948!
The commercial press has turned its back on an extraordinary theatrical career based on a talent for emotional honesty and political sincerity. Down Under Chelsea showcases these qualities and deserves to be seen by progressive activists of all generations.