Mrs Petrov's Shoe ~ theatre notes

Monday, May 15, 2006

Mrs Petrov's Shoe

Mrs Petrov's Shoe by Noelle Janaczewska, directed by Chris Bendall. Video Kirrilly Brentnall, design Kelle Frith, lighting Nick Merrylees, music and sound Kelly Ryall. With Jude Beaumont, Mike Bishop, Katie-Jean Harding, Toby Newton and Carole Patullo. Theatre@Risk at 45 Downstairs until May 21.

From the moment Ania bounces on stage in blonde pigtails and Polish national dress, fulsomely accepting a major literary award for her autobiographical novel about her immigrant background, the image of Helen Demidenko is impossible to shake.

The Demidenko affair was colourful even by the high standards of Australian literary scandals. In 1995, Helen Darville, daughter of Grace and Harry Darville of Scunthorpe, England, scooped a bag of literary prizes (including Australia's most prestigious, the Miles Franklin) with The Hand that Signed the Paper, a novel purporting to be by Helen Demidenko, the daughter of an illiterate Ukrainian taxi driver from Cairns, and trading heavily on its autobiographical authenticity.

Ms Demidenko - a camera-friendly young woman with startlingly blonde, waist-length hair - appeared on television in Ukrainian national dress and even performed Ukrainian dances, and spoke movingly of how "my father who can read and write neither English nor Ukrainian flew to Brisbane to see me after I won a prize for writing-words. So my mother who left school at twelve to work as a domestic, read her first book..." The media loved it. They loved it even more when her persona was exposed as a sham.

The Demidenko affair was one of the most bitter and tabloid-friendly scandals in Australian literary history. The Hand that Signed the Paper was controversial even before it won the Miles Franklin, accused of anti-Semitism and a tenuous grasp of historical fact. It was also attacked for plagiarising a variety of sources, including Toni Morrison.

But more complexly, the affair raised all sorts of bitterly contested questions, especially about minority literature and the performance of ethnic identity. "I kept it going for the cameras and they kept wanting to come and participate in it," Darville told Channel Nine's Sunday program. "I mean, this is this whole - part of this whole false celebrity that's attached to writers. If they want to make a false celebrity, I gave them a false celebrity. And it's - it's all false. It's - it's bogus."

Which brings us to the question of "authenticity", and fiction's relationship to reality. Demidenko's persona, consciously poised in its first edition by an author's introduction vouching for the historical authenticity of the novel, filled out what was missing in the prose. And if her Demidenko alter-ego enchanted the press with those Ukrainian dances, who is to blame her for giving them the simple ethnicities that Anglo-Celt Australia wanted to see?

It's been a decade since I read Darville's book, but I agree with Les Carlyon's observation that it takes a particular gift to make the Holocaust boring. I remember the novel as being coarsely imagined and poorly written, its stereotypical portrayals of Ukrainians, Jews and Germans doing nothing to mitigate the crudity of its didactic prose. It was, after all, a first novel by a precocious young writer who decided to tackle themes - genocide, racism - that require the power and subtlety of a Dostoevsky.

This wouldn't have mattered, had the novel not won so many prestigious awards, most of which cited the author's bravery in tackling such difficult and unspeakable themes. Helen Darville, as she pointed out with some justice, didn't award herself all those prizes. In other words, it wasn't the book that mattered, so much as the performance of identity around it. The ensuing fuss split Australia's literary community down the middle. Ten years later, it's telling that, unlike that other notorious Australian fiction Ern Malley, Helen Demidenko is remembered merely as a curiosity, and her novel, now out of print, is vanishing into the shadows of literary history.

This by way of a long preamble to Noelle Janaczewska's play Mrs Petrov's Shoe, which bases itself on the Demidenko hoax in order to investigate how ethnicity is perceived in Australia, at once marginalised and envied for its exoticism. Janaczewska has invented a somewhat less toxic Demidenko, Anna, a compulsive fantasist who wins a major literary prize for her moving novel about her childhood in Tasmania as the precociously imaginative daughter of Polish immigrants. For more than half the play, the scenario switches between Ann's victory speech and enacting the novel, which follows Anna's fascination with the story of the Russian defector Petrov and her conviction that her mother is spying for the Soviets.

Beyond the child Anna's feverish imaginings of spies, however, exists an uncomfortable and frightening world of adult complexities that Anna comically misreads. Her mother (Carole Patullo) is not spying for the Soviets; her furtive behaviour is in fact about helping a neighbour, who is hiding because he is an illegal immigrant. Moreover, her father's (Mike Bishop) frequent absences are due to illness, not nefarious activities. Anna is reminded again and again that life is more complicated than she knows. Unlike The Hand that Signed the Paper, this is a charming coming-of-age tale about a child learning to understand adult sadness.

Once the novel is enacted - which takes long enough for me to start wondering if I had got the Demidenko link wrong - the hoax is revealed. It turns out that Ania is in fact Ann, daughter of English immigrants from Scarborough who live a life of stifling ordinariness. There follow a few somewhat earnest summaries, via video and the actors, of the arguments that surrounded the Demidenko affair: defences of her right to invent herself as she likes; accusations of appropriation; observations that Anna's fraud compromises the perceptions of genuine minority literature; revelations of Ann's long-term fantasy life, which dates back to her schooldays. Ann is exposed as a fraud, but despite the public humiliation her compulsive imagination takes off again, reinventing herself...

It's impossible to talk about Mrs Petrov's Shoe without talking about Darville/Demidenko, and I think this is part of its problem. It remains too close to the Demidenko affair to really take off as a fiction of its own, and yet it is not, either, a theatrical retelling of Darville's fantasising. The play leaves to one side the less comfortable aspects of Darville's fake history - its anti-Semitism and incipient fascism - which in reality sparked bitter devisions between the Ukrainian and Jewish communities in Australia, and raised questions about mainstream Australia's comfortable fetishisation of the "simplicity" of the ethnic.

What we are left with is the marginalisation of minorities (expressed as a fashionable fetishisation of the exotic), the alienation of suburbia, and the question of whether a writer has the right to imagine realities that do not "belong" to her. Janaczewska's fake novel, with its layered complexities of realities, is in fact a more complex creation than Darville's; but the play remains imprisoned in the Demidenko narrative. This is, as I fear this review rather reflects, a play that is ultimately about issues, illustrative rather than inherently theatrical. Its theatrical lack is underlined by a lumpen structure, and Theatre@risk's production can't overcome that basic problem.

As a result, despite some fine and even moving performances, particularly from Mike Bishop and Carole Patullo, and Chris Bendall's inventive and fast-moving direction, it feels like a long evening. Everyone on stage is working their butts off, to little effect. And in the end, despite Jude Beaumont's energetic performance as the alienated Anna, the person you end up thinking about is Helen Demidenko/Darville, who these days is Helen Dale, and who is no longer a writer.

Picture: Jude Beaumont and Michael Bishop in Mrs Petrov's Shoe


DL said...

Actors working their butts off on stage: not often good results.

Actors truthfully struglling on stage : usually more interesting.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a very funny 90minute show! I loved all the send ups of the different stereotypes and particularly loved the use of the gallery space. Great set & music.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed it, but felt that Ania was rather overacted, and the play pushed it's message too strongly. I'd prefer some room for interpretation.

All in all a good night, it did seem to drag on at moments, but the inclusion of literary criticisms at the end was an unexpected surprise. That was well done.

Anonymous said...

I saw the show on the 15th of May. It was fantastic!!
The acting was brilliant all round. Each person knew their characters wholly and completely.
I am now writing a report on the play for unit 1 drama and am thoroughly enjoying analysing it.