Sydney’s loss was Brisbane’s gain, for when Margi Brown Ash made the big move 24 years ago, Brisbane gained a theatre performer of prestigious talent and a unique imagination. She and Leah Mercer formed a company called the nest ensemble which gave the world The Knowing of Mary Poppins, which toured nationally and won three Matilda Awards for the best Queensland theatre; A Mouthful of Pins and now a new piece called simply Home, which Brown Ash co-devised with director Mercer and her own son Travis Ash.
Home is a production unique in concept, writing and performance, one that breaks new ground and moves so far away from the idea of the well-made play that we are in another dimension altogether. It’s a new take on the nature of being, which doesn’t ask the question “who am I?” but “what am I becoming/can become?”. Woven in with this important metaphysical perception is another more homely question: “What is home, and where do I belong?”
It wouldn’t work in mainstream theatres, because it flouts all the conventions, all the expectations of narrative and character, and even of audience participation, which is here lifted onto another plane altogether. This is theatre of the moment and the future, giving us other dimensions, speaking directly to us, involving us with the characters and their stories, and making us understand the value of story for its own sake.
That all sounds very abstract, but the piece is both delightful and very involving, whether it’s when Brown Ash takes people from the audience very gently by the hand and invites them to become different characters in the story, or when Travis Brown Ash recites passages from other writers about how we feel about home. It’s real and it’s personal, and the overall effect is of a tender love which is both intimate and cosmic. It’s political, whether dealing with Australia’s own stolen generations or the dispossession of Palestinian people in Israel; it’s homely, as Brown Ash talks about her own family and their experiences; it’s inclusive, as strangers from the audience happily become family and we are touched by intimacy.
The scene is a number of clear hanging frames decorated simply with brief statements like “my story is your story”, and cut-outs of domestic objects like lace doilies. There are a few clear Perspex boxes containing a mask, a foot, a heart; and there are a number of chairs which are used in quirky and amusing ways. Brown Ash is the storyteller, a cross here between modern-day witch (her hair, as always, is sensational), mother, actor and therapist, and she begins by emphasising the importance of story in our lives. Stories, she shows us, don’t have to be true in an historical sense, although many of them are: but they must have meaning, and so she begins with the ancient Egyptian legend of Isis, Osiris and Seth, a story about a dysfunctional family where the jealous Seth kills his elder brother, king Osiris, and cuts him into 14 pieces, which Osiris’s grieving widow, Isis, searches the world for, and brings them back together to make a kind of resurrected god.
The legend, in various forms, is common to many cultures, even Christianity (think of Mary Magdalene searching for the body of Jesus in the garden), but here it is a metaphor of love overcoming hatred, a central theme of the piece.
Homes that are shattered, whether in fact or fiction, can be resurrected, she suggests, through the power of gentle love, and the production values, as well as Brown Ash’s own performance, are startling and astonishing. This amazing piece is a superb piece of theatre — it’s a long time since I’ve actually been moved to tears by a performance — and it’s a must-see for anyone who thinks that live theatre has out-lived its usefulness, or who is interested in the power of story.
A brilliant concept, and a brilliant performance, but more than that, a piece of theatre that comforts and reassures us, because Margi Brown Ash has proved Thomas Wolfe wrong — you can go home again, because home is here and now, wherever love is.
The details: Home plays the La Boite Theatre as part of the company’s Indie program until July 28. Tickets on the company website.