By any standards, Melbourne-based playwright Joanna Murray-Smith is a prolific writer, with more than 20 plays to her name. It is her regret that she is “one of only three [Australian] playwrights to make a living and whose work is done overseas.”
Her plays have been staged internationally, performed by acting heavyweights like Annette Bening (The Female of the Species), Laura Linney (The Gift) and Dame Diana Rigg (Honour).
But as she says, there are good years and bad years for a playwright.
Her most popular play, Honour, was produced by The Court in 2009. Honour was written in 1995 when Murray-Smith was studying at Columbia University in New York. The play’s first public appearance was in a reading with Meryl Streep and it has since been performed in more than 30 languages.
Murray-Smith’s lengthy career has not been without controversy. Her hilarious play, Female of the Species, inspired by a hostage incident involving feminist and fellow Australian Germaine Greer, divided critical reaction. Despite not having read the script, Greer described the play as ‘threadbare’ and Murray-Smith as an ‘insane reactionary’.
In an article in The Guardian Murray-Smith said she wrote the play as a celebration of feminism’s triumph.
“My intention in writing The Female of the Species was to devise a lively, funny play about feminism, among other things, and more specifically, about the legacy of those second-wave feminists whose courage, stamina and occasionally infuriating intellect have changed society for ever.”
Ali Harper in Bombshells, 2007
Despite – or perhaps because of – the debate and mixed reviews, The Female of the Specieshas been performed numerous times throughout English speaking countries, including a production at The Court in 2010.
In her creation of characters, Murray-Smith has been accused of being too privileged and too middle class. Speaking to a reporter from Australian theatre website Stage Whispers, Murray-Smith responds:
“But that’s who I am. I did have a privileged up-bringing. It’s what I know; what I understand. I do have writers and other ‘arty types’ as characters. But why should there be any less interest or empathy for the drama those people experience in their lives? The trappings of social status don’t mean that pain, or happiness, or moral dilemmas are excluded from your life. It’s just that they might be explored differently.
“My audience is essentially me – women of a certain age, a certain upbringing, financially comfortable … and a certain intelligence. My truth is mine, and no truth is absolute. But it is as valid as anyone else’s. I write for the Main Stage. … I’m not averse to alternative experimental work. Theatre needs to continue to grow. But new isn’t always better, and I’m far more committed to pursuing excellence than I am to doing something avant-garde just to see if I can. I don’t apologise for that.”
As a female playwright she not only writes for a female audience but for female actors too.
Ali Harper in Bombshells, 2007
The one-woman show Bombshells was written by Murray-Smith for Australian actress Caroline O’Connor. The playfeatures six funny and emotional monologues about six different females at different stages of their lives. One could argue that there were few great monodramas written for female actors that don’t centre on men and relationships with men. Bombshells broke this mould.
“Many of us are trying to lead multiple lives: child, mother, wife, lover, star, giving small doses of oxygen to each and imploding under the weight of so many competing roles. The women I have written in Bombshells struggle – sometimes hilariously, sometimes tragically – to bridge the chasm between the wilderness of their inner worlds and the demands of their outer worlds. And humour, in the end, is our saviour,” said Murray-Smith.
Bombshells, first produced at The Court in 2007, was also the perfect fit for New Zealand actor Ali Harper, a cabaret diva in her own right. Her performance at the prestigious United Solo Festival – the largest solo festival in the world – earned her the ‘Best Actress Award’ from the festival organisers. It also puts her in an ideal position to take on Songs for Nobodies.
In a series of monologues Murray-Smith wrote specifically for versatile Australian singer Bernadette Robinson, Songs for Nobodies tells five stories of ‘nobodies’ whose brushes with fame had a profound effect on their lives.
Court Theatre Artistic Director Ross Gumbley has been pursuing the performing rights for Songs for Nobodies for the last five years.
“I knew it would be perfect for Ali Harper’s talent and range – and Murray-Smith agreed – in fact she insisted that if we were to stage Songs for Nobodies, it could be only with Ali,” said Gumbley, “and that is how we exclusively won the rights to stage Songs for Nobodies in New Zealand.”
Ali Harper and Ross Gumbley in the rehearsal room for Songs for Nobodies
Gumbley points out that Songs for Nobodies is no easy piece. It requires a performer capable of enormous versatility and vitality to capture the distinctly different sounds of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas in such a way that will completely transport the audience.
“We want audiences to leave the theatre feeling like they have experienced a series of iconic moments: a Garland concert in Carnegie Hall; Cline in a honky-tonk hall in America’s deep south; Holiday in some smokey New York blues bar; Piaf at the Paris Olympia; Callas at one of the world’s great opera houses,” said Gumbley.
This formula works well for Murray-Smith. Five years after the success of Songs for Nobodies, she teamed up again with Bernadette Robinson to present a new work, Pennsylvania Avenue to showcase a different collection of iconic divas.