How close can you really get to another person? This is the question that Joy, the titular character of new play Dear Sun, Love Joy, asks in a monologue delivered from behind a paper screen.
Written and directed by Victoria Winata and featuring a cast and crew of local emerging creatives, DSLJ vivifies the life of twentieth-century Australian artist Joy Hester (Jessica Tran) and her relationships with her fellow creatives, including friend and rival Sunday Reed (Fahira Syifa Machfudz).
DSLJ premiered at Carlton’s La Mama Courthouse, with a showcase from Thursday, 31 August to Saturday, 2 September. I attended on the Friday evening, finding La Mama Courthouse tucked in a street in Carlton just a block away from Lygon. La Mama Courthouse is an intimate venue with a history of supporting new and experimental works; the intimacy complemented DSLJ’s poignant tone, inviting the audience to lean in and immerse themselves. Bronte Sunners’s and carefully dimmed lighting from Joanna Wijaya added to this hushed atmosphere.
A set of flowers and a few chairs around a table worked well to capture audience attention and a sense of life at Heide—a former dairy farm on the Yarra River that formed the base for Joy and her painterly circle in history and across this play’s hour-long runtime. In the backdrop, giant sheets with painted excerpts from letters did occasionally distract me as I tried to make out the words; still, they were effective as a visual tribute to the archival source of this play, and a persistent, floating reminder of not only the transience of time and the power of archives in retrieving figures from the past.
Winata’s script offers a thoughtful look at people’s relationships to one another. Focusing on Joy, the play also dips in and out of the lives of Sidney Nolan (James Madsen-Smith) and Albert (“Bert”) Tucker (Lionel Eisenbruch) and Gray Smith (Eisenbruch, deftly taking on two roles). On the receiving end of the letters is Sunday, caught in a push-and-pull with John Reed (Joshua Mackie). The performances were convincing across the cast, with Tran standing out as the elusive and enigmatic Joy.
In Heide, characters come and go, converse and receive letters, vent their frustrations, confess feelings, and brace themselves for farewells. The result? A sense of lives being entangled through proximity and genuine affection. In DSLJ’S fragmented structure, traditional dialogic scenes are interluded with Joy narrating from offstage or behind the backdrop, as well as one of the highlights of the play: shadow scenes acted out from behind paper screens placed on either side of the stage, reducing these historical figures to silhouettes. Show information indicates that these drew inspiration from Javanese traditional dance and wayang, shadow puppetry, and the visual effect was striking and memorable, particularly in one scene of physical confrontation played out in shadowed motion.
At times, the play’s scattered, fragmented structure generated a sense of disconnectedness, that worked against the play; moments when the plot and character were not easy to follow, meaning that Winata’s heartfelt script lost some impact where the broader plot confusion subsumed it. Nevertheless, Dear Sun, Love Joy was both heartfelt and boldly experimental work, certainly a joy to watch; I look forward to seeing what this cast and crew will create next.