In 2012, after many years of friendship, Noni and I worked together for the first time on Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Heretic. This experience solidified our personal connection and established our professional rapport and desire to continue working together. With that in mind, I asked Noni what she wanted to do next. To me, she is one of those rare artists in this country who can seamlessly and successfully traverse the realms of stage and screens both big and small. If she could do anything else, what would that thing be? To that question she had a fast answer – she had never done a one woman play before and wanted me to direct her in one.
Immediately I thought of approaching Daniel Keene to write something for Noni and thankfully Daniel was interested. I set up a coffee date for the three of us to meet. We sat outside on a cold Melbourne winter’s day and very quickly I saw a rapport developing between actor and playwright. We talked about things that we were interested in and our preoccupations at the time. Noni had recently been hosting the American actress Ellen Burstyn on a teaching and speaking tour and Burstyn had told her the story of her practice of Sufism, and that one of its core demands was the need to give up things. Burstyn had sworn off alcohol, cigarettes and sugar, but found the hardest thing to give up was judgement. We also spoke about fear and about our mutual love for Dorothy Hewett, whom Noni has actually worked with on the inaugural production of The Man From Mukinupin, creating the dual roles of Polly and Lily. On that day, no idea or theme emerged, just a meeting of three hearts and minds.
From that meeting we agreed to work together and planned to find a grant for Daniel to write something. Ten days later, Daniel knocked on my front door and handed me the script for Mother. Daniel writes so well for particular actors – his work with the Keene Taylor Project was based on the ensemble of actors who were part of that company. In Mother, he has created a character that reflects Noni’s unique blend of toughness and vulnerability, humour and heart, and in doing wrote her the theatrical role of a lifetime. Mother has been a unique and ongoing gift to Noni and I.
From Hobart to Cairns, our production has toured the eastern seaboard of Australia and I was fortunate enough to see the play many, many times. My heartfelt thanks to Daniel Keene for a truly remarkable script and for the many years of work together, Kat Chan for her costume, set and props design so carefully curated and beautifully wrought, Tom Willis for the wonderful light and darkness, Darius Kedros for carefully capturing the sounds of Christie’s world, and to Ainsley Kerr who steered the fleet and was a champion Stage and Tour Manager. What a generous team of collaborators. To Noni, my love and respect always. Thank you for your commitment, incredible artistry and for being at the centre of a work that I am very proud of and a performance I will never forget. Finally, to Shayne Greenman who has been the greatest supporter of my work and life for the past fifteen years, much love and thanks for giving me my home.
Mother plays at Belvoir 24 January to 11 February. For more information or to book tickets, head here.