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  • Vasili Papathanasopoulos


Blessed Union is in association with Sydney WorldPride

Image: Brett Boardman.

In association with Sydney WorldPride, Belvoir St Theatre is currently the home of Blessed Union, from the mind of writer Maeve Marsden. We spoke to directer Hannah Goodwin and actor Emma Diaz to chat about the production and the importance of sharing this story.

Written by Maeve Marsden, Blessed Union offers a glimpse into family dynamics and how a parental separation can cause a tectonic shift. In this instance, we find a family who believe they can move forward together unchanged. Ruth (Danielle Cormack) and Judith (Maude Davey) have made the difficult decision to end their romantic relationship, but plan to keep the core values that bind their family together at the forefront of their relationship moving forward. Over an Easter meal, they deliver the news to their two children, Delilah (Emma Diaz) and Asher (Jasper Lee-Lindsay), assuring them that nothing will change.

Over the course of seven or eight months, we witness key dates and events within their lives. With each holiday that comes around, the audience is privy to the way the family is coping with the decision, and how it has affected them as a unit. Each character embarks on their own transformative journey. Ruth and Judith navigate how to regain their own autonomy as individual entities away from their identity as a couple, and Delilah and Asher begin to pave their futures far from the paths they were on when we first met them.

Blessed Union presents a situation we haven't typically seen on stage and screen; the dissolution of a queer marriage. Filled with humour and wit, the families driving force of navigating the situation in a way far removed from a heteronormative divorce is challenged as the reasons that led towards Ruth and Judith's separation is revealed. The play touches on identity in many facets, with a brief focus on Delilah and Asher's mixed-race identity feeding into the emotions of longing for a sense of belonging.

Lee-Lindsay and Diaz are standouts in the production, offering comedic relief, but also tender moments that allow the audience into these characters lives. Cormack and Davey do a wonderful job of complimenting each other through the nuances of their character choices.

Goodwin beautifully directs the piece, drawing out the emotion and comedy present within the play and creating the familial tensions that can be associated with change and family gatherings. The set mirrors the cracks that start to grow within the family unit, becoming messier and scorched as the production unfurls, whilst also inviting the audience into their home and life in a warm and inviting way. There's subtle references to significant socio-cultural events within history, with the couple taking down their marriage equality poster to make room on the wall for their divorce plan.

Can you tell us a bit about the productions premise?

Hannah Goodwin: Blessed Union is a brand new play by Maeve Marsden, and it's about a lesbian family who live, sort of locally in the Inner West. They were prior to the action of the play, highly active in the campaign for marriage equality, a highly prominent family, like advocate family. Now they are undergoing a divorce, a separation and go through a process through which they attempt to Queer family, Queer divorce in an attempt to stay together. And it's about that process and how it sort of goes awry

It's such a fun, interesting story. Not one that I've seen done before, I don't think I've ever really seen a production on queer divorce. It's in association with Sydney WorldPride 2023, and as as you said the play delves into love, heartbreak and activism. How did you both find working with these powerful topics in your respective roles as director and cast member?

HG: Super fun. I mean, the play is so smart cause if you ever meet or speak with Maeve, she's so, so smart. And so all of the themes... It's a really ideas heavy play. It's tackling some big ideas, yes, about love, yes, about family, but also about change and the nature of change. It asks big questions about how we can affect change. Like whether you really can change institutions from the inside slowly and patiently or whether you have to actually step outside of them and burn them down, start again. And then of course whenever you're talking about change, there's also lots in there about failure. So it was really rich, thematic landscape to work inside of as a director anyway. Lots to pull through in the production, for like the imagery to work metaphorically on that ideas level inside of the argument of the play, which was really fun. What about you Em?

Emma Diaz: As an actor in the process, it was amazing to engage in these big ideas, but then the stakes of the play are in a family dynamic. So it's very much... It ultimately is just like a family breakdown and family relationships that you have to make kind of intimate and gritty and have all of that, all of the feelings that you know, a family can just press each other's buttons. Like there's no one else can. And yeah, finding all of that was really beautiful on top of the ideas of the play. It's very funny and very cutting when it needs to be.

HG: Yes. As well as, you know, cause there's all the ideas, but as Em said, you've gotta honour the experience. There are a lot of people coming to the show who will have been through a divorce or been through the end of a long-term relationship and you have to work really hard to honour that experience. And then on top of that obviously, you know this is a kind of family that we haven't seen represented very often on main stages in this country. And so we really worked hard to represent an accurate, like a whole little culture. And so it was really detailed from work.

Emma, you mentioned the humour just there, and I know the play is described as "the lesbian breakup comedy you didn't know you needed." So why do you think it was so important to weave comedy into this breakup story, and what do you think are the advantages of having it sprinkled throughout?

ED: It is so funny. Truly, Maeve is very clever and Hannah's done a brilliant job of highlighting it all. It's very physical and enjoyable and rich. I think part of it is, comedy always draws an audience in and brings out a truth in a different way. You can engage deeper by being drawn into the hilarity of these characters and then the heart comes out underneath it and it kind of, it takes you by surprise a little bit, how the humour can draw you into their humanity and their wit. So the heart comes out of that and it just makes for good theatre I think. .

HG: Mm-hmm. I think often good comedy comes from pain. Comes from human pain and it's partly because it disarms us. Like more often when something terrible happens to you, you laugh about it because it's like a defense mechanism. And I think all good comedies are black, are dark comedies and yeah I think for these characters it's because they're in such unfamiliar territory. Their unit has been so strong and for the first time in their lives, the cracks in their lives are coming from inside of their family and that puts them in a pretty bizarre situation. Like the way they try and manage that the way they try to detangle, puts them in some awkward, strange situations. The comedy comes out of those situations, comes out of the human stakes of that. Which is that, for them, this is a family that they've worked very hard to build, to fight for the right to be in the world. And so those heightened stakes mean that actually funnier things can happen.

ED: Part of the humour as well is giving a nod to the community. There are certain parts that are funny because people from the queer community will see it and recognise themselves and sprinkled throughout it are little nods to the community that they will be able to engage with on a different level to maybe like general audiences.

HG: Yeah.

What drew you both to the script and the individual roles you're taking on? So obviously for you Hannah, director, and for you Emma, the role of Delilah.

ED: Delilah is so fun to play with cause she's a whip smart, kind of annoying in how engaged she is with politics. But she's also a young bisexual biracial woman, who just wants to engage her family differently. And I just, I love playing with her .

HG: She's such a perfectionist, hey? For me, so Maeve and I came into Belvoir at the very similar time as fellows and she started writing the play right when I started working at Belvoir. I was really fortunate to be around this play as it developed pretty much right from inception, really. The first time I read it, the thing that I remember reading about it was laughing a lot, but also being quite moved. And then also just the feeling of, it made me feel very clever and very stupid at the same time . I found that quite thrilling and so I was always a big advocate for it over the past couple of years. And then when it came down to it - they were gonna program it and asked me if I would direct it, it was a really easy decision cause I already felt like I'd been imaginatively living with these characters for a few years and had grown to love them, really. But also I'm interested in long relationships. I'm interested in really old, complicated relationships because I think human behaviour is weird and you can be weirdest with the people that you've known for the longest. So I was excited to get stuck into that with these actors, yeah.

ED: It's also, you know, it is special knowing you're doing a play that the subject matter hasn't really been dealt with very much on the stage. So we all feel very lucky to be doing that. I've worked with Hannah before on a play last year and so as soon as Hannah was interested in having me do the role, I was like, yes, please. Just beautiful working line.

Emma, your character goes on this huge journey throughout the play and takes on responsibilities within the family whilst also navigating growing up. What are some of the things that you wanted to bring to the character that aligned with her journey?

ED: What did I want to bring to her journey? I think just... Delilah's realisation of the importance of family, but then how, you can still break a model that you've grown up with, even if you think that model is progressive and you're fighting for change, there is always more to do and more to fight for. And I think Delilah goes on a huge journey, realising that she's kind of the next generation of ideas and the next generation of, you know what can be achieved in relationships and politics and the institutions that we've been placed in. So I think trying to honour that kind of new generation of ideas was a big part of what I wanted to bring to Delilah.

Do you both have a particular scene that's your favourite in the play and what makes it so?

HG: Yeah, I definitely do. There's a scene that ends the last act where one of the mother's pulls on a barbecue and starts barbecuing inside the house. And it's so fun and funny because Maude Davey is just the most extraordinary clown, but like a heartbreaking clown. It feels so real everything that she's doing, but it's delightful to watch. But also what I really love what that image does, theatrically but also poetically in the play. That's - I reckon that's my favourite scene.

ED: My favourite to play is... the play is set over several months. So kind of each month that my character comes home from uni. There's the point at the play that she moves home to try and look after one of her mother's. We call it the pit. Like they're in this gross kind of hilarious pit of...

HG: It's rock bottom.

ED: Yeah, it's rock bottom. And my favourite part is playing in there cause it's when it gets really messy and we get to play dress ups on Halloween, and we get to have screaming matches but then become the most authentic with each other as well in those moments of, 'this is the bottom of the well'. It's the most biting part of the play for me and I really love playing in there.

Like you just said, the play is set over several months and there are a few holidays celebrated within the play. What do you think these holidays symbolise or represent within the production and which one of them is your personal favourite ones?

HG: What's my favourite one? I think Halloween is my favourite. It was quite a late arrival in the play, but yeah, the play is bookmarked by Easter and Christmas basically. And part of the reason that that's important to the play, is that Maeve is interrogating how we adopt and adapt, reform traditions over and over, so we fit inside them, but actually, can you ever really revolutionise those things, is the question. And so, yeah, those holidays, those traditions and the way that this family has picked them up and tried to turn them into something that suits them, suits their family, tried to turn them into something more progressive, but actually have they actually succeeded in doing that? You'll have to come to the play to see, really.

ED: These holidays are also part of the performative nature of care.

HG: Yes.

ED: It's something we always talk about and how we see this family performing care for each other. But through the process of this kind of breakdown of the family dynamic, we get to a place that's more authentic in their relationship because they're not performing for each other anymore.

HG: Yeah. Love without obligation. Yeah.

That's very interesting. Back to the overall themes of the production, why do you think this is such an important story to tell?

HG: Partly what we've said before, which is a representational task. There's a big long grand tradition of family drama in theatre, that Maeve is building on, consciously standing on the shoulders of those kinds of plays. But this is not a family that has been able to participate in that grand tradition before. So that's important. Secondly, I think it's, in terms of the themes, for me it's about how do we love each other better? There's a micro conversation about this particular family in their scenario, but also Maeve's using them to talk about a bigger picture, like the state of our society as well. And how we can care for each other better, have more honest real conversations with each other. How we can grow and progress and yeah accept our failures too, I think.

ED: And probably how we should interrogate the institutions that we have been brought up in as well. And if they're useful to us anymore.

What messages do you hope that audiences take away from the play and from the characters within them?

HG: There's sort of different things for different communities actually. First of all I hope people leave thinking a little bit more deeply about the different structures, institutions, symbols, traditions that they engage in and why. That they haven't just inherited them. That they are actively choosing to participate or not participate in them. I think the second thing is I hope that people leave with the sort of comfort of that yeah, it's okay to fail at that sometimes as well. That's the nature of progress. Whenever you're pursuing change, you have to be prepared to fail. That doesn't mean that you should not keep trying. Yeah. Failures are part of it.

To finish off, could you describe Blessed Union in three words?

ED: Chaotic, queer, joy, .

HG: Love, food and puns. .

I love it. Three of my favourite things.

Blessed Union runs until March 10, 2023 at Belvoir St Theatre in association with Sydney WorldPride. Tickets are on sale now!


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