Letters to Lindy is an important reminder that so many lessons can be learned from history: ‘trolling’ is not a contemporary phenomena, appearances can be very deceiving, and the ability of people to overcome deep personal tragedies can be inspiring. At the heart of Letters to Lindy is the tragic death of 9-week old Azaria Chamberlain, and the ensuing 30-year battle of trials, coronial inquests, and public commentary. Interwoven with the recollections of the bereaved mother are extracts from unsolicited letters sent by members of the public. Everyone, it appears, had a view as to who or what killed Azaria. Letters to Lindy is a masterclass in verbatim theatre. Alana Valentine (playwright) combines extracts from the National Library of Australia (NLA) archive of letters with excerpts from her own conversations with Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton. Punctuated with dates and facts, the play also incorporates some of the testimony, ‘evidence’ and trial deliberations, augmented with two short imagined conversations between observers. In a little over two hours, the cast of four transport the audience from the present back to 1980, and then forward to the present-day.
Jeanette Cronin, Glenn Hazeldine, Phillip Hinton, and Jane Phegan bring the verbatim piece to life. As the lights come up, Chamberlain-Creighton's home is circled by tormentors, shouting abuse at the window and coming into the house. “I thought we’d start with the comic relief” are the first words spoken by Cronin, who gives a superb performance as the resilient Chamberlain-Creighton. To survive such pressure over a 30-year period clearly requires a unique ability to accentuate the positive, as “comic relief” is Chamberlain-Creighton’s own way of referring to the 3% or so of letters which are the most hostile. Not every voice is so critical. Hazeldine, Hinton, and Phegan create a cast of hundreds, touching on responses that included accusations that the Chamberlain’s wanted money, through to items sharing offerings of art and poetry. Many letters were of support: expressing sadness or apologising for her treatment, sharing experiences of wild dog attacks, or difficult personal experiences. And a much smaller number, which were clearly greatly treasured, were written to entertain.
People of all ages chose to write, and the rendition of some of the children’s stories were both charming and amusing—particularly the memorable performance by Hazeldine of an extended letter from one child. The impact that the case had on the Chamberlain’s own children, in particular on Reagan (Hazeldine), also came through strongly in the show—one of the many poignant moments being where Reagan wanted to stay in Darwin, and another wanting to have “Mummy come home” from prison.
That the letters survive is a result of an initiative of NLA librarians, who first visited Chamberlain-Creighton in 1986. But before handing the collection over, Chamberlain-Creighton acted as her own archivist, creating a unique filing system which Valentine drew on when reviewing the material for the play. No mean feat, as the collection is now estimated at over 30,000 letters, emails and items (with a further 1,000 emails a year still being received). Even if the legalities concluded with the fourth coronial inquest in 2012, it appears that many Australians still feel the need to correspond with Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton.
The actors were exceptionally well-cast. Cronin peels back the layers of the central character: we enjoy her ability to find humour, are amazed at her faith (particularly at ‘He is able”), and comprehend the climactic “I will no longer.” Hazeldine has some of the best childlike moments and Hinton brings a believable depth to his many characters. Phegan moves seamlessly from the dark moments in the trial, to the raw honesty of many of the letters.
The Powerhouse Theatre is a wonderful space, and the seating layout demonstrated just quite how flexible it can be, on this occasion creating an intimate experience for a large audience. The lighting was occasionally a bit abrupt—but that might have been a feature of the first night in a different venue during a busy tour (lighting design Jasmine Rizk, based on original design by Toby Knyvett). The music was appropriately atmospheric but not intrusive (Co-composer/Co-sound Designer Max Lambert and Roger Lock). But I wasn’t completely on board with the set design.
As a touring production a set must work in all spaces, big and small. This set created the home where we might imagine Chamberlain-Creighton holding reflective discussions with the playwright, surrounded by the boxes of letters and ephemera which act as what one of the imagined Librarians describes as a steadily-building “memorial” to Azaria. But as the space also works as the Darwin prison where Chamberlain-Creightonspent over 5 years, on this occasion I’d loved to have seen less realism in the set. However, two moments were particularly effective in the staging: the use of the red sand, and the movement of the boxes. The sand was a horrifying reminder of the death of the child. And the use of the boxes established a sense of the role the letters had play in Chamberlain-Creighton’s life—and even the possibility that such ‘possessions’ could have literally boxed her in (suggested in the Happy Days-style staging toward the end of the show, as Cronin sits in the middle of the pile of boxes).
Some of the promotional material describes the show as a long overdue conversation between Lindy and the nation. Letters to Lindy demonstrates that many citizens have been engaged in a long-running conversation with 'Lindy,' with a resolution (of sorts) only beginning with the 2012 coronial verdict. The play encourages a dialogue of the nation with itself—to think about issues of trolling, of expectations that a bereaved mother will behave in a particular way (“she’s way too calm”), and to recognise that appearances can be deceiving. Letters to Lindy is not just a play for those who lived through the 1980s and 1990s. It is a play of our time: thought-provoking, touching, funny, and occasionally inspiring. See it if you can.
Verdict: Superb ensemble work, and a bravura performance by a leading lady who is hardly ever off stage.
Audience tip: Additional rows of seating added for this performance, adding to the intimacy of the experience (so if you usually prefer row E, consider row C). Drinks can be taken into the space, so why not arrive early and visit Bar Alto on your way in. Parental Advisory (website suggests 13+): some strong language and adult themes. 130 minutes (including 20-minute interval).
The Show tours from June-September 2018, with a short run at Brisbane’s Powerhouse (1-4 August 2018. 7:30pm each evening plus a 2:30pm matinee on 4th August). Tickets and information via the Brisbane Powerhouse website or at the Box Office ($45 Full, $36 Concession, $25 Student. Note: Additional $5.95 transaction fee for ticket purchases).
The reviewer attended the Wednesday 1 August 2018 performance.