Evonne Goolagong Cawley rose to fame in the 1970s as an Australian Aboriginal Tennis player on the international women’s circuit.
At the age of only 19, she won her first Grand Slam at the French Open and went on to win a further 6 Grand Slam tournament championships, including 4 back-to-back Australian Open titles. Goolagong Cawley was the number one ranked player in 1976. She also took out an astonishing 6 doubles championships in the same years that she won a singles championship. In the years she did not win, she made it to the final on eleven occasions. Goolagong Cawley’s success as such a young age is incredible. But, how did she get there?
Well, you are in luck with Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest offering, Sunshine Super Girl. The play is a dramatized, theatrical re-telling of Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s upbringing and early career. As a Wiradjuri woman born in Griffith, New South Wales, she grew up alongside her siblings in the quiet country town. Hitting a ball against the wall of her family home with her brother, her love of the game grew stronger and stronger. Eventually, Evonne Goolagong Cawley is picked up Victor Edwards and moves to the city to peruse her talents. With Edwards as her coach, Goolagong Cawley is thrust into the limelight as a young, Aboriginal woman on the world stage.
Sunshine Super Girl is staged unlike any production I have ever seen before. Upon entering The Sumner at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, I was greeted by a tennis court right where the lower seats would normally be. The area where the stage is normally, was replaced by a set of seats to mirror the main theatre seats. The space had been converted into a tennis arena with seats on either side of the stage, a tennis net through the middle, an umpire’s chair, 70s era kitbags, and benches on either side of the net. The entire theatre travels patrons back in time the moment we set foot inside. It was the perfect setting for the story of a tennis legend.
With Evonne portrayed by the delightful Ella Ferris, we begin with the tennis great as a child. The mannerisms and innocent tone of voice that Ferris puts on with ease made me believe there was a young child on stage. This was only strengthened with the introduction of her younger brother portrayed by Kirk Page. Picture a happy toddler stomping around and playing games with his sister, that was Page to a T, he was a toddler on that stage.
With Mum portrayed by Jax Compton, Dad by Lincoln Elliot, and younger sister by Katina Olsen, the troupe were the perfect representation of a young family in country New South Wales. And, as the timeline of the story progressed, so did the body language of the performers as they portrayed different characters.
Whilst Ella Ferris steals the show as Evonne Goolagong Cawley, her success in the role would not be possible without the incredible ensemble cast. Not only do Page, Compton, Elliot, and Olsen play her direct family, they each play multiple roles including, but not limited to, Coach Mr Edwards, love interest Roger Cawley, tennis rival Margaret Court, and even a classic Country Gas Station Attendee. And whilst the whole cast mostly wear classic ‘tennis white’ costuming for the entirety of the production, their incredible abilities to switch between the plethora of characters is unmatched. There was not a single point in the whole play where I was confused by who was portraying who.
What makes this production unique to many other pseudo-biopic productions I have seen is the addition of dance. With original choreography by Vicki Van Hout, double threat actor and movement director Katina Olsen, the visual representation of playing tennis is told through interpretive dance. Even more impressive is the traditional First Nations dance style that represented the movement of Goolagong Cawley practicing and playing tennis. Whilst it was clear Ella Ferris was playing tennis, it was also clear the performance honoured First Nations story telling through traditional dance.
There was also a clear distinction between the actions of Goolagong Cawley’s fluid movements versus the ballet style interpretation of her opponents. A clear division in culture that not only highlighted the importance of heritage, but also the segregation of colour that sadly still happens today. A massive credit to the creatives for choosing this method of storytelling, it was an absolute delight to witness.
Now, lets refer back to the epic staging of this production I mentioned earlier. With writer and director Andrea James at the helm, and set and costume design by Romanie Harper, along with lighting and sound by Karen Norris and Gail Priest respectively, the performance space is absolutely incredible. One that I have never seen before. The space almost takes on a persona of its own and becomes another character for the performers to work with.
I loved the traverse nature of the stage where the actors are actively engaged with the entire theatre. Rather than just projecting outwards in one direction, they were switching their focus between either side. A clever parallel to an actual tennis match sitting on the sidelines with the spectators’ heads swinging from left to right as the ball is in play.
With the performance I attended being an ANZ Forum Night that held a Q&A after the performance, it was asked of the team if it was challenging to remember to share the performance with each side. It was unanimous that they all thrived on it. Almost like a bucket-list item to ‘perform in the round’. It is clearly a staging choice that happens very rarely, and I feel honoured to have been able to see this production in this setting.
Sunshine Super Girl is a masterful, respectful, and truthful history lesson on the life, battles and rise to stardom of Evonne Goolagong Cawley. Whilst it is a classic underdog tale of not only a little girl from the bush, it is also an important chapter of Black Australian history. This production has everything from fun and laughter to heartbreak, grief, racism, and sexual assault. I also discovered during the post show Q&A that as First Nations performers, it was important that Evonne Goolagong Cawley had full custodianship of the story. Knowing this makes the whole production seem even more special, and I am very thankful I was able to bare witness to such an inspiring and educational historic story.
Sunshine Super Girl is performing at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre until Wednesday the 14th of December. Tickets and more information can be found on the MTC’s website here:
Photography by Paz Tassone.