This is Eden is a solo theatre performance written and performed by Emily Goddard, exploring the experiences of female convicts in 19th Century Tasmania. The work, which veers boldly between cute comedy and darkly confronting physical theatre, delves in to themes of criminality and law, class, identity and the construction of colonial Australia. Goddard, as modern-day tour guide Jane and historical inmate Mary Ford, channels her convict heritage to strengthen her through a physically and mentally demanding performance. 

Mary is a convict placed in solitary confinement for the crime of becoming pregnant as an indentured servant, who now entertains and disturbs the audience (or herself) with bouffon imitations of her colonial governors and prison pastors. The comic irony of these impressions is contrasted with the abject reality of the prison cell and Goddard’s mud and spit-smeared body, creating a gripping and even nauseating experience. 

The show proper is (extensively) introduced by Jane, who endearingly frames the space as a heritage museum-cum-theatre, complete with maps, books, antiques and historical information sheets in the foyer. The bumbling introduction is an unexpectedly comforting beginning to what we anticipate (and later confirm) is a fairly grim theatre production. Jane unsubtly hints at socio-political relevances in the story, particularly in comparing the brutal conditions faced by convicts to those endured by asylum seekers on and offshore today, and the more general debate raging worldwide in regards to immigration and national identity. Recently I’m appreciating it when an artist can be honest and transparent about whatever ‘current issue’ they claim to be speaking to with their work. It’s more accessible, it’s less pretentious, it’s good.

Goddard’s writing was excellent. There was no question to why we were seeing what we were seeing or hearing what we were hearing. It was gripping and engaging. Goddard knows the historical facts are heavy; she interjects with humour. She knows the facts can be boring; we witness something horrific to remind us of their gravity. She knows the story of the Cascades Female Factory in Launceston can seem too specific to be relevant; she explains why it is relevant to all Australians. The show is without a core narrative, but structured very well; through the stories that Mary tells, we learn more and more about her circumstances leading up to that point, with Goddard carefully feeding the information to us to keep us interested. Her performance was likewise excellent. We were captive audience to her strong gaze; near the beginning of Mary’s first appearance, she eats muddy bread, chews it and lets the half-chewed muddy bread ooze out onto her face and dress as she smiles maniacally. It’s a dirty, wet show, and we’re impressed by her willingness to be in those conditions at all. Her agility in swapping between characters is also impressive; each character sometimes shivers or quakes, and we can see a glimpse of the vulnerable human beneath. We read on the wall outside that women in the jails would often give performances like these, paralleling the tradition of bouffon (which Goddard is trained in). 

Romanie Harper gives us an understatedly fantastic set. The rusty metal jail cell basically just looks real, but with extra features for theatrical magic, including a perforated floor for lights to shine through and a dripping roof that can make it rain as well. It’s visually stunning, but remarkably subtle. Much the same could be said of Gina Gascoigne’s lighting design, which reveals a traditional mastery of stage lighting, with many beautiful moments. Ian Moorhead’s sound work was evocative and well crafted, though sometimes sounded a little flat, more of a technical than artistic problem. 

I think I can thank the director Susie Dee for the clarity of the show, and the precise use of the body in space. The dribble, mud and blood on Goddard’s body is so visceral, we can feel it in our own bodies like a punch. The set and lighting work together brilliantly; the narrow, dimly lit jail cell set gives us plenty of space to fill with our imagination. The show is formally conventional in many ways, in a way that doesn’t seem surprising for 45 downstairs. Perhaps I mean conventional in the sense that it seems straight out of the textbook of how to make a fairly traditional one-woman show really well. This is good, I think?

There is a strange moment where Jane shows us a pre-Federation map of Australia and gives us a timeline of English colonisation, starting with Cook landing at Botany Bay, the traditional land of the – oh, she’s sorry, she forgot the name of the tribe. A friend I’m sitting with speaks up from the crowd – it’s Gadigal land. She then points to Launceston, and she asks volunteers if they know the traditional indigenous owners, and then the crowd, and nobody knows, and she’s sorry. Soon Jane is crying because her boyfriend recently broke up with her and she’s worried we (the crowd) think she’s racist and that she’s sorry, she just doesn’t know the names. I was confused as to how much of Goddard to read here, and who this performance is for. We can see that Jane is pathetic and over-the-top, a hint of Goddard’s Gaulier clown training showing. The white people in the audience collectively feel a bit embarrassed to be white and (for the most part) similarly ignorant. When my friend shouted out and knew whose land it was, I felt a bit smug to know her (not that I myself knew it was Gadigal land), and for a moment it looked like Jane’s crying performance was just offensively self-indulgent ignorance. Looking back, I think this effect might have landed better if my friend hadn’t shouted out, and we were truly ignorant. I question this moment. Acknowledging that it’s easy to call white artists’ attempts at engagement with aboriginal realities problematic, in an artistic climate where still, most white artists don’t bother to make that step at all, I still can’t help but feel that sometimes white artists will engage more with the experience of white guilt in relation to aboriginal people than with the actual experiences of those people. When this happens, aboriginal realities can be employed as a kind of artistic tool through which white artists can manufacture an emotional response in their audiences without either side being accountable for their actual actions. Sometimes I wish we could just have a much more humble experience of learning together, because there is much for all of us to learn, indigenous and non-indigenous. This is only a small part of the show, but I just thought it might be worth trying to unpack.

This is Eden nonetheless made the case for its existence very convincingly. When I arrived at the theatre and remembered it was a show about convicts, I can admit to feeling a bit pre-emptively turned off. Australians in general seem fairly unwilling to engage with their history, and this show was at points almost gleeful in how willing it was to run against that grain and encourage others to do the same. I came out of it wanting to know in clearer detail about my own convict heritage, and all my other ancestors as they made their own way to this country. The importance of this hardly needs to be said; how can we make changes for the better in this country if we barely know who we are? I thank This is Eden for the well-crafted reminder that trying to understand the past is not impossible or fruitless.