An inmate is left to wait in a prison visiting room for the older sister she has not seen for 18 years. When Tilly arrives, she is a stream of nervous energy. She has two letters from their dead mum – one for her, one for her sister Egg. She thought they could open them together. But their mum abandoned them when they were four and seven, and in her place a lifetime of loss and pain has grown around the middle-aged sisters, who now must face each other to try and unpick it. As Tilly and Egg search inside their tangled selves for something that will bring them back to each other, they slip together into memories of their shared childhood. ‘my sister feather’ is a poignant portrait of two women trying their best but failing anyway, but it is also a play that captures the messy, bruised, joyful love of sisterhood and of family.
The second work in a trilogy by playwright and director Olivia Satchell, ‘my sister feather’ was shortlisted for both the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights’ Award 2017 and the Max Afford Playwrights’ Award 2018. Written for Belinda McClory and Emily Tomlins, two of Melbourne’s most accomplished actors, this is a play of intensity and courage that swims in a sea of complex femininity and evokes those bewildering emotions of family relationships with skill and nuance.
The traverse seating and stark set design by James Lew exposes both audience and actors; not only are you surveilling their bodies, but you are gazing onto each other. It is a somewhat confronting set-up for a play that sneaks up on you as it asks you to reach into your own memories of childhood and family, but it fills the theatre with a charged emotional energy that flows from stage to audience and back again. Lighting design from Jason Crick is simple but effective; together with Tom Backhaus’ subtle but lovely sound design, the play slips effortlessly back and forward in time in that way so specific to siblings evoking their shared past together.
‘my sister feather’ is as much a play about the female body as it is about grief, sisterhood and memory. To see middle-aged women play out versions of themselves as children and teenagers is to feel the rivulets of trauma encased in bodies that were forced to grow up too soon. McClory and Tomlins skillfully evoke Tilly and Egg’s seven-year-old and ten-year-old selves with both the joyful bounce of childhood and its melting sulkiness. As thirteen and sixteen-year-olds they are simultaneously falling off a cliff and burning down the world. And then, with all these versions of their past selves packed up inside them, they are middle-aged sisters in a prison visiting centre, desperately fumbling around for who they are.
There is something about the strength and wiriness of both Tomlins’ and McClory’s bodies that makes the pain of all that is twisted up inside them all the more poignant, and in her direction Satchell uses their physicality as a tool that is just as important as her writing or the emotional energy coursing between the women. The way that both the actors wield their bodies with precision and intention makes you feel that within each of their characters is a tightly coiled spring, ready to leap from their throats at any moment.
But really, that moment never comes. This is not a play of screaming catharsis or sobbing redemption; it is a play in which the heaviest emotional lifting comes in moments of stillness and silence. ‘my sister feather’ demands that you pay attention, that you are present for these sisters, and that you bear witness to their pain.
Images: Sarah Walker