Leah Purcell is a magician. A sorceress. Not so much actor, as channeller of other spirits.
In Belvoir St’s Downstairs Theatre (with another indigenous production concurrently upstairs, Beautiful One Day), she directs herself, revivifying the prodigious Bundjalung woman, Ruby Langford Ginibi, born Ruby Maude Anderson and who’s unexpurgated moniker was Ruby Wagtail Big Noise Anderson Rangi Ando Heifer Andy Langford (a name which, in its magnitude, doesn’t even touch the sides of her charisma), in an adaptation of Ginibi’s autobiographical book of the same name, in which endeavour Purcell has collaborated with Eamon Flack.
Stiff Gins’ Nardi Simpson joins her on stage to sing some of what are, apparently, Ruby’s favourite songs (such as the play’s namesake), as well as punctuate the monologue with some guitar and percussion. It’s also enriched by Lorna Munro’s paintings, which are hung, progressively, on the back wall.
Of course, to say this is an adaptation of the first of Dr Ginibi’s books isn’t quite right. What the work does is background the book, giving us insights into just what went into it and the kind of life that had to be lived to produce it. As Flack points out, the book stands as a literary monument. Or it should. It’s one of the best and most revelatory ever written in this country; not only in terms of its rich narrative, but its broader insight into the indefatigable resilience of Aboriginal people. So, as is sometimes the case with biographies, but only the very best of them, the personal becomes emblematic of something much large: in Ginibi’s case, she has, wittingly or otherwise, written a history of Australia, albeit not the one to which we’ve become accustomed; the one for which we’ve settled. Flack rightly speaks of Ginibi in the same breath as Tolstoy, Orwell, Brecht and Lawson, in terms of her grappling, on the page and in person, with the struggle to survive and adapt.
Speaking of adapting, the great beauty of the Flack-Purcell script is it draws almost exclusively on Ruby’s text, save for the odd segue and a story given by her daughter about how she got the name Ginibi (it’s an honorific bestowed by her grandmother, if memory serves, meaning little black swan). This is a disciplined and generous decision that makes a refreshing change from the name-making (or, sometimes, unwittingly, breaking) aspirations of many a young writer or director who, in deviating from something that ain’t broke, seeks, nonetheless, to fix it.
So, Purcell’s performance aside, what one is really “reviewing” is Ruby’s life; like Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s, a great life (albeit in very different ways), live by an exceptional woman. As to that performance, though, LP moves from comedy to tragedy in the way that life can. And does. She disarms you with credibility and intensity and, having surrendered, you are totally vulnerable, susceptible within her emotional control. Of course, a good deal of this has to do with Ruby’s irrepressible character, which leaps off the page, into Purcell and out into the ether. It’s transfixing. Which isn’t to say, given 50-odd pages of text, there aren’t a few scary moments. But some latitude and grace must be afforded. After all, this is a monologue.
Ruby was born on Australia Day, 1934, at the Box Ridge mission, Coraki, on the north coast, but her long and arduous journey, over the course of her biblical allotment and then some, saw her move from a sleepy coastal town to Surry Hills, Alexandria, Redfern, Erskineville and elsewhere, mothering nine children along the way. This was doubtless intrinsic to her nature, perhaps all the moreso due to the fact her mother left when she was only six. She might have spent her formative years in far northern NSW, but by 15 she made her way to the big smoke and was working as a machinist in a clothing factory. She also worked, at various times, as a fencer and cleaner.
But there was much more in store for Ruby, who was garlanded with numerous prestigious literary and human rights awards, as well as earning a double doctorate. But with the smoothness of success came the rough stuff as well. She lost three of her children; one, an epileptic, at home, taking a fit while running a bath and drowning in a few inches of water. Ruby’s was a life well lived, despite and because of everything tat happened to her.
Purcell draws us in to the intricate text, dense with all sorts of detail: names, dates, places, relationships and more. In the end, it’s not even necessarily that important if you don’t remember it all. I’m astonished she can. What’s important is the impression it leaves. The stereotypes it challenges. And those it utterly obliterates. It’s hard to separate Ruby from the woman that plays her. This, for two reasons. Firstly, Ruby’s a force of nature whose strength of personality transcends mere words on a page. Secondly, Purcell inhabits those words so empathically and intuits that which is between the lines so strikingly.
No wonder they admired each other so much.
The details: Don’t Take Your Love To Town plays Belvoir St’s Downstairs Theatre until January 6. Tickets on the company website.