Dee and Cornelius’ Big Heart (Theatre Works) centres around an Australian woman who decided to adopt five babies from five continents. The play opens with a rich, childless businesswoman (Andrea Swifte) – the matriarch, all silver-haired, court-shoed and blazered – backgrounded by her five adult children (Sermsah Bin Saad, Daniela Farinacci, Elmira Jurik, Kasia Kaczmarek, and Vuyo Loko) each holding the bundle of a newborn. The adults scream, and scream, and scream, like babies. It is a striking opening; an image of a big-hearted, well-meaning mother completely oblivious to the tidal wave of grief she has just invited into her home.
Dee and Cornelius are well-known for their ability to delve into complex, provocative topics, and to render them in an effortlessly stylised manner which gracefully augments their subject material – their production Animal was as much proof of this as you can guess. ‘Big Heart’ is less successful but still a solid production that raises big questions about parenthood, family, and home.
As the chorus of children grow from babies into adulthood, the idyllic, unproblematic children that their mother envisaged come up against all the normal teen stuff – sex, drugs, dropping out of school – except for the fact that they each struggle to know who they are in a family of six different races, five different countries, and endless unknowns about their ‘real’ mothers and the families they left behind. The five actors playing the children each give nuanced performances, and make a convincing family unit at any of the ages they inhabit. As they come to terms with their inherited privilege and their impoverished birth families, issues of class rise to the surface which are – disappointingly – never really explored. Swifte gives a commanding performance as the matriarch of the family, swinging between uncomplicated altruism to a selfish grasping at her children.
I saw the show on opening night, and there were a few technical wobbles. The cast also felt a little more alight with opening-night panic than usual, so hopefully everything will have settled into place after a few nights. Lighting by Rachel Burke is evocative, and Marg Horwell’s set design is striking and expansive, evoking both Toorak mansion, warm family home and heartless cavern.
‘Big Heart’ is a production which asks a lot of questions, and does it well, but which perhaps could have benefited from asking a few less and doing it with more depth. Cornelius’ script is incisive, and Dee’s directing assured; it is difficult to specifically fault the production, and I wonder if I am judging it harshly because of my deep love for their previous production of ‘Animal’. It is a production to see, and to see with your friends, for there will be plenty to be discussed in the foyer afterwards.