Alone, afraid and raised by the wilderness, Memmie is introduced to society and has civilisation thrust upon her. Inspired by true events in1731, Memmie Le Blanc is a play that deals with what it means to be human; is it rules, conventions, language or love that makes us what we are? What defines man from beast and how do we differentiate between a normal person and a savage?
This rarely seen play, written by Hillary Bell, is being performed by Union House Theatre at Melbourne University from Friday 9 September until Saturday 17. And it promises to be a unique theatrical experience. The play itself comes from a true story; however, it is a fictionalised account of the real Memmie and uses the story as a philosophical allegory which raises questions pertaining to Rousseau’s 'noble savage’ and Hobbes’ ‘brutality of man’, just to name a few. And this is part of what drew playwright Hillary Bell to it, who, at the time, was raising two little savages of her own. “What are we without the civilising process” Bell asks, it is a process which is essentially one “of shaving off the rough edges”. We raise people and teach them the rules, we do our best to cut away any animalistic qualities and focus on what society expects of us. Memmie, on the other hand, has raised herself by her own means, but is she noble or is she dangerous? Moreover, Bell asks, if you don’t have language, “how can you communicate, how do you remember” and importantly “how does thought form?"
After an extensive history in many facets of the arts world, Hilary Bell found herself working as a writer. She has studied at NIDA – playwriting 1987, Australian Film, Television and Radio School – Screenwriting and Julliard – Playwriting and now works out of Sydney with commissions for plays from Black Swan. It was at a workshopping of the play back in 2006 when Tom Gutteridge, artistic director of Union House Theatre, first came in contact with the play. He was paired up to be an actor for the readings of it and immediately became interested. “It’s a really interesting play” he says and Hilary is “a deep thinking and theatrically wise playwright”. So he decided to realise this script within the walls of Melbourne University using four brave students to take on the roles of Memmie, the savage (Dana McMillan), Catherine, her French aristocratic guardian (Madeleine Ryan), an anthropologist (Dylan Morgan) and his monkey Robert (Grace Cummings).
The actors have undergone rigorous rehearsals for their roles in which on more than one occasion things have gotten quite physical. The crew have got a movement director, who has worked in circus, dance and performance art to help them achieve the physicality many of the characters require along with gym memberships from the university. Tom explains that some rehearsals aren’t about the script at all, but rather, who has the power in the scene, who is ostracised and where do they all stand in relation to one another. In addition to the physical movement are lip-synced songs which are tropicalia numbers from 1912 to 1950. These songs, which romanticise and extol the exotic lives of savages, loosely reflect the action in the play, but also draws attention to the piece as a theatrical experience and the way mankind learns from mimicry. It’s easy to sympathise with all of the characters, Gutteridge continues, for starters, you feel for Memmie, who is torn from one world to another but you also care about Catherine who does love Memmie and just wants her to be civilised. Then you can relate to the anthropologist who tries to express concerns about conforming Memmie, and lastly, there is the orangutan that can’t speak, but plays piano and juggles.
Tom believes that “Memmie’s journey is complicated and emotionally potent. She is remarkable on a number of levels”. Therefore, the play itself becomes layered with meaning. Because at the end of the day, what is man but a civilised monkey? And what is civilisation but a set of rules that we are confined by. The set reflects the walls of society; the large climbing frame encases the stage and acts as a euphemistic prison in of the scenes. Whether we recognise it or not we are all encased in some way and restricted by the walls we build around ourselves. Would we be better without them? Well, Memmie, Le Blanc’s ending is left up to the audience, though Gutteridge promises that, while it is ambiguous, it is beautiful and emotional.
Memmie Le Blanc – Friday 9 September until Saturday 17
Guild Theatre, The University of Melbourne
More details: http://union.unimelb.edu.au/memmie/