Sybylla Melvyn announces (triumphantly and somewhat without apology) that this is a play all about herself. Stuck on her family property as the eldest of eight, her drunken father (Jason Chong) has squandered much of the family resources while her mother (Blazey Best), keen to marry her off, is worried she’s too plain.
In strong defiance of society’s plans for her, Sybylla (played by Nikki Sheils) is seeking her ‘more’ – a destiny not determined by her stock on a marriage market and where her agency is sacrosanct. At wits end, her mother sends Sybylla to live with her wealthy Grandmother, where her unfiltered wit and intelligence transcends her perceived plainness; attracting a number of suitors.
While fiercely declining the boring Frank (Tom Conroy) – and learning of the sharp double-standards society expects of her in relation to men – she encounters an old childhood friend, the more down-to-earth Harry (Guy Simon). Right when it looks like she might be swept off her feet, we’re reminded Sybylla told us this wasn’t a love story.
Miles Frankiln’s novel, My Brilliant Career, was Australia’s first major contribution to the literary from in 1901, released the same year as Federation. Almost 120 years later, its story is as relevant as ever, as the world grapples with economic hardship, nationalist crises and ongoing gender inequality. Using her middle name to appear male, Stella Maria Miles Franklin famously sent the manuscript to Henry Lawson with strict instructions not to blow her cover, which he very much ignored in his preface in the first edition. After a number of reprints, Franklin – distressed at the comparisons between the book and her real life – ordered it be taken off print until after her death.
Sheil’s Sybylla is raw and full of energy in a tour de force; bringing together an old-world charm with contemporary wit and grace. The remaining cast are impeccably brought to their many roles. Diverse casting across the board creates a wonderful tension between the play and the original text, re-contextualising Australia’s relationship to race and class at the time of Federation.
Robert Cousens’ stripped back set allows the cast to shine and Sheil’s energy to inhabit more of the space, while his costume design offers some gentle winks to contemporary Australia. Lighting design by Amelia Lever-Davidson packs a punch at a number of points while Chrysoulla Markoulli’s composition and Steve Francis’s sound design helps the play flow with ease.
The fact is that women today still face many of the same norms presented in a 19th Century story. However, its playful nature avoids any didacticism in telling what’s become one of our nation’s major contributions to both literature and first-wave feminism. The story washes over you with warmth and humour and within moments, you can’t help but fall in love with Sybylla’s grit and dogged determination in the face of it all.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
My Brilliant Career is running at the Upstars Theatre of Belvoir St Theatre until January 31st 2021. For tickets head HERE.
All performances, except Thursday and Sunday matinees, are operating at 75% capacity. Those matinee performances will be operating at 50% capacity.
Header Image: Brett Boardman