In the 19th century, a woman’s place was in the home. It was considered absurd for a woman to be in the workforce, rather she should be at home looking after her family, dressed in a pretty frock and a fancy hat. However, one great Australian writer challenged this idea, by featuring an independent “new” woman as a lead character in many of the playwrights she wrote––her name was Oriel Gray.
Oriel Gray was born in Sydney in 1920 and as she grew up she fell in love with the Sydney New Theatre, developing an ambition of becoming a playwright. Little did she know her dreams would come true; between 1943 and 1960, Gray wrote 14 theatre scripts which were produced in almost every Australian capital city. According to The Age, Gray’s plays were progressive because of the themes she dealt with, exploring issues such as the environment, Aboriginal culture, politics and equality.
In 1955 Gray rose to fame when one of her plays, The Torrents, shared first place in the renowned Playwright’s Advisory Board Prize with another Australian play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. These successes were a significant feat for Australian theatre as in the 1950s, Australian plays were rare, with British and American productions dominating the industry. Unfortunately, the prize money from the award and one professional production in Adelaide during 1996, were all that came of The Torrents, and Gray moved on to writing for television.
According to author Michelle Arrow, Oriel Gray was one of Australia’s best known “forgotten” playwrights, and without her, we wouldn’t have the strong theatre culture seen today. Gray died in 2003 but the Black Swan Theatre Company and theatre lovers have continued her legacy, with the play brought to life for a second time on stage at the Heath Ledger Theatre.
Left to right: Tony Cogin as Rufus Torrent, Luke Carroll as Kingsley, Sam Longley as Jock Macdonald, Celia Pacquola as Jenny and Rob Johnson as Bernie.
A Black Swan and Sydney Theatre co-production, The Torrents is directed by Clare Watson and is set in a small fictional town named Koolgalla in 1890. The events in this comedy-drama take place inside the newsroom of the regional newspaper, the ‘Koolgalla Argus’, run by the editor Rufus Torrent (played by Tony Cogin). On one such newsy day, the staff await the arrival of a journalist known only by the initials J.G. Milford whose been successful in fitting the job position as a qualified journo. However, none of them knew the J stood for Jenny! And by Grundy (an expression used many times by old and gnomish Christy), were the men shocked when a woman strolled through the door.
The arrival of Jenny (played by Celia Pacquola) coincides when tension between the newsroom starts to form. Kingsley (played by Luke Carroll), an innovative engineer, has an outrageous idea to bring irrigation to the community and he wants the newspaper to print it. Uproar ignites, and debates about whether the town should give up gold mining for a more sustainable, economic future kick off between the staff, Mr Torrent, and the paper’s main investor John Manson (played by Steve Rodgers), who believes journalism should “tell people what to think” rather than to tell the truth.
There are two narratives running through the play with many themes still relevant today. The first storyline revolves around Koolgalla and its future in the agricultural industry, as gold mining is becoming sparse, with spurs discussions around how the land should be used more sustainably. The second narrative involves Jenny as she encounters sexism and the issue of women’s rights in the workforce during this period. She is told “a woman’s place is in the home” and is asked to leave the ‘Argus’. However, Jenny is strong-willed and is determined to stay, proving she is a great asset and has a firm stance on women being treated equally to men.
Running for 100 minutes with no interval (according to Celia, when you start wondering when the interval is going to be, the play is finishing), the audience follows the events starting to unfold as Jenny introduces change and arguably, most importantly––a woman’s logical opinion.
The play provides an interesting insight into the perspectives of journalism and workplace gender politics during 1890, when newspapers would have been the main source of communication and information about the world for the public. Fast forward centuries later, and we are seeing an increase of online news publications and less people physically turning the pages of a newspaper. It seems ludicrous to think that women were looked down upon for entering the work force, and that this was how the world worked back then.
The other female character in the play, Gwynne Thomas (played by Emily Rose Brennan), is a stark contrast to Jenny. She has an arranged marriage with Mr Torrent’s son Ben (played by Gareth Davies), who also works at the paper; Gwynne is always popping into the newsroom looking for Ben––or gossip. It seems Gwynne doesn’t do anything for herself and when she meets Jenny she is both fascinated and confused by Jenny’s choice to work.
The set and costume design, brought to life by Renée Mulder, replicate the era exactly, transporting the audience to the past. Each actor wears a periodical outfit, with the ladies wearing a corset dress and the men donning top hats, vests and swinging a cane. The props featured are exceptional too, from the typewriter to the metal lunchbox Jock Macdonald (played by Sam Longley) eats his biscuits from.
As a budding journalist myself, it’s fun to think what the atmosphere of a newsroom would be like with reporters tapping noisily on the keys of a typewriter and sliding the bar across. The world of The Torrents is inspired by office spaces from the Victorian period and is loosely based on the Western Argus, a newspaper published in Kalgoorlie from 1894 to 1938. According to the designer, the set and character descriptions are extremely detailed with every box, window, desk and dust placement are described in the script.
Left to right: Gareth Davies as Ben Torrent, Luke Carroll as Kingsley and Emily Rose Brennan as Gwynne.
The play involves a very talented cast and each actor truly transforms into their character for the act. A few performances that stood out to me include award-winning comedian and actor Celia Pacquola as the lead female character. She is witty, fierce and funny and pulls off the role of the ‘new woman’ wonderfully. Another high contender is Gareth Davies in his role as Ben Torrent, whose character hides under his father’s name and doesn’t believe he can top his father as a journalist.
Emily Rose Brennan’s character Gwynne Thomas is refreshing, giving a feminine touch to the play with her innocent personality and pretty, pastel dresses contrary to the deep brown oak colour of the set. Even the Scottish accents of Tony Cogin and Sam Longley fooled me into thinking the actors were born and bred in the United Kingdom; that’s when you know the dialect coach has done a commendable job.
It’s clear Oriel Gray was ahead of her time when she wrote this play. It’s scintillating, humorous and carries forward-thinking political messages. Despite her gender not helping her attempts for a reputation in the male-dominated playwright world of the 1950s, Gray was one of the few Australians to make a living from her creations. Witness her play on stage and get a taste for some historical Australian theatre; the Black Swan and Sydney Theatre Companies have put on one hilarious and clever production. Grab your friends, family or fellow journos and go see The Torrents, but hurry the train to Koolgalla leaves Perth at the end of the month.
The Torrents is showing at the State Theatre Centre of WA in the Heath Ledger Theatre until June 30th!
For more information and tickets visit click here.