***.5 Stars

By Virginia Proud

It is a rare treat to experience live theatre in the dawn of 2021, and even better when performed within the galleries of the Heide Museum of Modern Art. In conjunction with a major exhibition of the works of Joy Hester, this raw and personal glimpse into key moments of the artist’s life takes place surrounded by her mesmerising art. The slight echo of the museum gallery only emphasised the opening atmosphere of dreamy nostalgia.

Hester was a key figure in the development of modern Australian art in the post WWII period, a member of the “Angry Penguins”, alongside some of Australia’s best loved modern artists, including Tucker, Nolan, Boyd and Percival. Despite posthumous appreciation for her work, during her life she struggled to achieve recognition as an artist in her own right, working in what was considered the lesser media, watercolour and ink. As part of the Heide Circle, she relied heavily on patrons John and Sunday Reed, the founders of Heide.

Alongside Hester’s disappointments as an artist, a core theme of Joy is the emotional complexity of her decision to leave husband, Albert Tucker for Gray Smith, abandoning her three-year-old son Sweeney. As she laments, “A woman who leaves her child for love, is the Devil”.

This occurs at a time Hester believed she had a short time to live, in the aftermath of her diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This period, and the experience of her treatment, is vividly and disturbingly portrayed by Claire Larisse Nicholls, as Joy. Sadly, after thirteen years of remission it would claim her life, aged only forty. The hopes and tragedies of Hester’s too-short life provide a deep well from which Croyden has constructed an eloquent and evocative piece of theatre.

Unlike some biographical work, Joy is no straight telling of her life and work, but a collection of key moments and encounters. Structurally this an interesting approach, however it seems that Croyden has assumed audience knowledge about the major relationship and influences in Hester’s life. In this lay my only real problem with Joy. The recurring challenge (as I experienced) contextualising conversations, people and episodes, did distract from my appreciation for the piece.

Luckily, Nicholls is captivating as Joy. She brings a strong physical energy to the performance, delivering moments of whimsy, to raw anguish. Rosie Westbrook’s original soundscape and instrumental sound effects are brilliantly effective, punching into the emotion of a scene. In delivering the whole, Sara Grenfell’s direction has created excellent contrasts in pace, tone and movement.

Considering Joy in the context of the exhibition – which the audience also had an opportunity to view – I’d say that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is impossible now to separate the woman from the art, reflecting on her motivations as the work develops. In turn, viewing the art underlines Joy’s tragedy; “I never did any of the things I dreamed of.”

Unfortunately, only three performances, all sold out, have been scheduled for the run of the exhibition, but you can still catch the exhibition itself which runs until 14 February.