It’s a story that fascinated Australians like few others.
In the Northern Territory in 1980, Lindy Chamberlain was accused of murdering her infant daughter, Azaria. She claimed the child had been taken by a dingo, a claim rejected by a flawed legal system. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Northern Territory coroner amended Azaria’s death certificate to recognise Chamberlain’s version of events as the truth – that Azaria’s death was caused by a dingo attack.
Over three decades, the public wrote more than 20,000 letters to Chamberlain. Varying vastly in tone from sympathy to abuse, from children to Aboriginal trackers who supported her claim, these letters are said to traverse the gamut of human responses to Chamberlain’s story. Those letters are now held at the National Library of Australia.
These letters have also served as the inspiration for a brand new play written by award-winning playwright, Alana Valentine. Commissioned by Merrigong Theatre Company, Letters to Lindy draws on the correspondence, as well as extensive interviews with Chamberlain herself, putting our fascination with one of the 20th century’s most iconic Australian figures front and centre.
Starring Jeannette Cronin (TV’s Crownies, Janet King, Rake,) as Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, alongside Glenn Hazeldine, Phillip Hinton and Jane Phegan, Letters To Lindy is directed by Darren Yap (Ladies Day, Miracle City).
Theatre People was fortunate to speak to Yap following the play’s recent world premiere in Wollongong.
Yap was introduced to Valentine by Griffin Theatre Company’s artistic director, Lee Lewis, who paired the two to work together on Griffin’s Ladies Day. It was at that point, Yap says, that Valentine asked him if he was interested in reading her play Letters to Lindy.
“That’s where it started,” he says. “She sent me the script and I was kind of intrigued. I wasn’t really interested in the story of what happened to Lindy Chamberlain and the linear story, but what I was interested in was all those letters that were written to her. She still receives emails now – about 1,000 a year. It’s extraordinary.”
After reading the play, Yap attended a reading by Merrigong Theatre Company.
“I really, to be honest with you, thought this was quite an extraordinary piece. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to do it,” he admits.
“It’s a series of letters, that are monologues essentially, written to Lindy. And as much as I found them very extreme and wonderful and kind, I thought, ‘How do you actually stage this? … How do I make this actually about relationships and not just about,‘ And now, letter number 23…’?
Yap ultimately decided that it was key to ensure the piece became about the relationship between Chamberlain and the letter authors.
“She literally filed over 20,000 letters. She categorised them, she filed them by A – Z, she put them in different colour-coded folders – she put the ‘nutcrackers’ in the red folder and the kind people in the blue folder. She was such an archivist, and I thought maybe that’s the premise. Maybe we start the piece literally the night before the library’s coming and they’re going to take all her letters from her.”
Yap also contemplates Chamberlain’s motivations in so carefully filing all of the correspondence she received.
“I thought, ‘Azaria has never had a gravesite, Lindy’s never been able to grieve over her at a funeral’… I thought that was why she wanted those letters… She kept those letters to keep her little baby girl’s memory alive.”
So why does Yap think Australians were, and continue to be, so fascinated by Chamberlain?
“I think we were all swept up in a very similar way to the Schapelle Corby [case] years later or the Monika Lewisnky [case]… It’s very interesting they’re all women and they’re kind of outcasts,” Yap says.
“That fascination, I think, continues because people couldn’t actually believe that a dingo could take a baby. They just couldn’t believe it, and they wouldn’t accept the logic or the forensics of it.”
Yap says that Chamberlain has had some contact with the team throughout the process of Letters to Lindy coming together.
“She’s had a lot of time with Alana. They are very close,” says Yap.
“Alana has a very strong, trusting relationship with Lindy… and through that trust, Alana introduced the cast and myself to Lindy, and she’s been incredibly gracious and funny. She’s got a great sense of humour. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, as you can imagine.”
“We did have a bit to do with her, and yet she didn’t interfere… She came, she spoke to us, had lunch with us and then came to opening night.”
Letters to Lindy had its first audience at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in late July, and has since played the Canberra Theatre Centre and the Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre. On Friday night, it arrives in Sydney at the Seymour Centre.
Theatre People asked Yap to share audience responses to the work, which have stood out for him to date. He talks about audience members who attended the very first preview.
“There was a school group and they were so young… and Alana and I were saying to the teacher, ‘Why have you brought them?’ and the school teacher said, ‘Because I want them to understand that you shouldn’t believe everything in the newspaper’. And I thought that was really interesting, that… she wanted… to say, ‘Can you believe this happened in Australia to this woman?’
Yap continues: “There was a guy at the next preview who was grumpy and slightly gruff, and he passed myself and the team, and he didn’t know, I think, we were working on it, and he said, ‘Oh she’s guilty!’ And… at the end, he was in tears, and he was irritated that he was in tears… and he said, ‘I understand now what happened’.
“Whether you leave thinking she’s innocent or guilty, I think you say, ‘Did that really happen to her? That is extraordinary. And did the nation do that to her?’ I think that’s what’s interesting about the play.”
Letters to Lindy plays the Seymour Centre in Sydney from September 2 – 10. To book tickets, click here