To almost any young child, a father is their first champion.
He’s ten foot tall, his voice is enough to shake the mountains and he’s strong enough to lift a car with one hand. For young Christine (Angourie Rice), this sums her dad up perfectly. Jack (Ian Bliss) is a war hero, a fighter, a POW (prisoner of war) who never gave up. But Jack brought something back home with him. Something which his entire family would need to live with.
Jack, like many veterans, suffers from PTSD. Anger, fear, love; it is impossible to know which Jack you are going to get at any moment. His loving wife Martha (Maude Davey) tries to understand but it is so hard at times. As the youngest of the family Christine idolises her father, always keen to hear his retelling of war stories. However, for her brothers and sister things are more complicated. The eldest son Johnnie (James O’Connell) faces the brunt of his father’s mood swings. The twins, Door (Benjamin Nichol) and Mouse (Zachary Pidd) may as well be conjoined with how closely they stick together, while older sister Jill (Lucy Goleby) is at top of her class and the only member of the family willing to stand up to Jack‘s outbursts.
Through Christine‘s eyes, we get an intimate look at this volatile family dynamic. From the 1950s to 70s, tempers flare as the Vietnam War begins. These children become adolescents forever warped by their upbringing. My Sister Jill is a story of survival, heartbreak, trauma, and hope. But above all a story of war and the damage it inflicts on us long after our heroes return home.
My Sister Jill comes from famed Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius. Based on her 2003 novel of the same name, it is a semi-autobiographical look at the domestic hardships so many endured post WWII. Directed by Cornelius’ frequent collaborator Susie Dee, the play is an honest, hard hitting, yet at times hilarious family drama.
From the very beginning things seem off in the family home. We’re shown everyone playing, running around laughing but there’s a sense of foreboding in the air. My Sister Jill does an excellent job at presenting the dynamics of a household constantly in flux. Never knowing what will trigger a memory and set off a landmine, taking everyone with it.
Jack is a deeply scarred human being. One that his family love but also paradoxically hate depending on his mood. His tales of war thrill Christine, but they shouldn’t. This play is set at a time before returning soldiers could get the psychological care they so dearly needed. These aren’t merely fun memories of survival and adventure; they’re dark horrific stories of inhumanity and they have affected Jack. Constantly pulling him down into the depths of despair and now stuck in a never-ending cycle, seeking out conflict even when there isn’t one.
My Sister Jill is also a coming-of-age story for all of Jack’s children, growing up in this environment. The play explores the effects an abusive upbringing has on our development. How are we supposed to learn how to be adults from a father figure who is so thoroughly broken?
Cornelius’ play is not a completely accurate portrayal of her brothers and sisters. Also, a third daughter from the book has been excised. But what is here allows the cast to have extremely powerful and heartbreaking moments.
Ian Bliss has an exceptionally challenging role to play but he pulls it off. Being able to portray Jack in such a way that we are as conflicted about him as his children are. Do we love him for his jokes and warm side, or do we hate him for his inexplicable outbursts?
O’Connell, Nichol and Pidd also provide great performances. We see three different boys growing into three very different young men, each damaged in their own way. With twins Door and Mouse once indistinguishable from the other being torn apart through the horrors of the next inevitable war.
Goleby as Jill shows her character’s unwavering rebellion and strength. But also, she is nurturing, often more of a mother to the others than even Martha. “Like a dog with a bone” she may just be the child who takes after Jack the most. Through her, the story gets its sense of hope. But what peace is there in a life of endless defiance?
The play and book are titled ‘My Sister Jill’ as something of an homage to George Johnston’s 1964 novel ‘My Brother Jack’. However, I didn’t feel that Jill as a character truly tied all the narratives together as the title might infer. Rather, that is something more shown by the direct relationship between Christine and her father.
The true standout performance of My Sister Jill is Angourie Rice as Christine, making her mainstage theatre debut. Last in billing but first in our hearts, we see Rice’s Christine transform over the course of the play. We see the world though her narration and often scenes play out as she watches from the sidelines. She’s naive and resists growing up more than everyone else as she sees just how horrible being a grown up truly is.
Set design by Marg Horwell is spectacular with frequent changeovers. We start out on the outside of the family home as everything is picture perfect. While the family’s 1953 FX Holden car is parked stage left; a symbol of ‘the great Australian dream’, it is only as the household’s walls lift away, we see past and that façade both literally and figuratively.
This is accompanied by impressive lighting and sound design by Rachel Burke and Kelly Ryall respectively. I particularly enjoyed the team’s creation of a fireworks display through projection and sound. So immersive, it made you feel like you were right there… until you wish you weren’t.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s My Sister Jill can make for a challenging view into a home ravaged by PTSD. But it is ultimately a hopeful story of survival and overcoming hardships many still face today. A talented cast bring Patricia Cornelius’ characters to life and Susie Dee makes them shine. Proving again that this is one of Australian theatre’s most versatile and brilliant creative partnerships.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s My Sister Jill is currently playing at Southbank Theatre until 28th of October 2023.
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Photography by Sarah Walker.