In his 2014 title, Australian History in 7 Questions, the late historian John Hirst said the following about the Australian community as it was in 1945:
“They were a British people – more British than the British – and proud of their racist policy, a White Australia, and extremely watchful of any threat to it.”
Knowing that, it’s easy to envisage what would have been encountered by Italian immigrants who arrived in Australia after World War II, seeking better lives for themselves and leaving their decimated homeland.
It’s the Italian settlers of this era whose story the late Richard Beynon told in his best known piece, The Shifting Heart, which was first performed on stage in Sydney in 1957 and later enjoyed a season on London’s West End. Produced by White Box Theatre, it’s now playing Sydney’s Seymour Centre in a new production, directed by Kim Hardwick (who, in recent times, has directed White Box’s Blackrock and Sport for Jove’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
The Shifting Heart is set in Melbourne in the 1950s. It’s Christmas time, and the Bianchis, a family of Italian immigrants, have established a life for themselves in Collingwood. There’s the patriarch, Poppa Bianchi (Tony Poli), Momma Bianchi (Dina Panozzo), and their two young adult children, Gino (David Soncin) and Maria (Ariadne Sgouros). Maria is married to a white Australian, Clarry Fowler (Lucas Linehan). Maria and Clarry are expecting the arrival of their first child, and Gino is keen to spend his nights socialising with other young people.
It takes little time for Beynon’s story to begin revealing the enmity the Bianchis live with, having settled in the neighbourhood of inner suburban Melbourne. Nonetheless, each member of the family shrugs off this hostility and remains committed to life in Australia. Disturbingly, Gino’s efforts to socialise have catastrophic repercussions that highlight the rampant xenophobia and tribalism in the white Australian community that pose a threat to every immigrant.
Owing not only to his timely themes, but also the quality of Beynon’s writing, The Shifting Heart remains a powerful and moving theatrical work. It perhaps stretches slightly too long as it moves towards its ultimate conclusion, but it conveys its message about misplaced fear with total clarity and tells a story of Australia’s past that rings incredibly true. Hardwick’s direction feels unobtrusive, and that helps to create the sense that the story is unfolding organically.
That natural progression of the narrative is also a result of the cast’s tremendous, authentic performances. Panozzo is remarkable as Momma Bianchi. She is kind and loving, loud and fiery, and works hard for her family. We watch the inner pain she suffers as darkness descends on the family and she struggles to keep the threads together. Poli is similarly impressive in his portrayal of her husband – a man determined to adjust to life in Australia. There’s a believable chemistry between Panozzo and Poli.
Soncin proves the ideal choice for the role of Gino, the energetic young man who wants the same life experiences as other young men, and who pays a high price in pursuit of simple pleasures. Sgouros’s Maria is stubborn and outwardly resilient, but hides deeper pain. She struggles with the idea of bringing a child into a no man’s land and a family surrounded by the casual and not so casual racism of everyday life.
Di Smith is terrific as the Bianchi’s middle-aged neighbour, Leila Pratt, who offers a level of hospitality to the Italian family but has her own issues at home to confront (she suffers domestic violence at the hands of her husband, played by Laurence Coy). Ironically, the behaviour in the Pratts’ white Australian household is far more of a threat to peace and order than anything that transpires in the Bianchi residence. Coy is solid as both Leila’s abusive husband and the unashamedly racist and despicable Detective-Sergeant Lukie, whose callousness demonstrates how deeply embedded racism and mistrust are in the Australian psyche.
At the centre of the story, Linehan is strong in delivering the character of Clarry Fowler. His is a nuanced, understated performance that serves the naïve young white Australian well. It’s Clarry who has the biggest journey in the piece, as he comes to terms with his own racism (both unconscious and conscious), the roots of those attitudes and the impact of his behaviour on those around him. It takes a tragic set of circumstances to force Clarry to examine his complicity, but given the writing of the character and Linehan’s performance, the way in which it plays out on stage feels very present.
Ultimately, The Shifting Heart is more than just nostalgia; it is a history lesson and a timely reminder to prevent history from repeating itself.
THE SHIFTING HEART – SEASON DETAILS
DATES: Playing now until 24 March, 2018
TIMES: Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturdays at 2pm
BOOKINGS: www.seymourcentre.com/events/event/the-shifting-heart/ or (02) 9351 7940
TICKETS: Adults $45 / Concession $35