Adelaide Festival review: Maureen – Harbinger of Death

Jonny Hawkins’ ode to, and example of, well-crafted storytelling brings together little moments from across some well-lived lives to form a beautifully layered and intimate larger picture.

Mar 15, 2023, updated Mar 16, 2023
Jonny Hawkins inhabits the semi-fictionalised character of Maureen in Adelaide Festival show 'Maureen: Harbinger of Death'. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

Jonny Hawkins inhabits the semi-fictionalised character of Maureen in Adelaide Festival show 'Maureen: Harbinger of Death'. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

The adult experience of listening to a story is nostalgic – a throwback to an era of life when time had a stretchier quality, and reality was less intrusive.

Maureen: Harbinger of Death’s creators have built their show around the power of this sentiment, drawing on storytelling’s inherent sense of comfort to build an intimate and compelling world.

Co-conceived by performer and writer Jonny Hawkins with director Nell Ranney, the show is superficially simple. Hawkins, inhabiting the semi-fictionalised character of Maureen, sits down with the audience for a smoke and a chat that tours through moments from Maureen’s life and the lives of her friends, stopping occasionally to re-interpret Greek mythology.

The work is contained entirely within Isabel Hudson’s lush yet unadorned set. Using the forms of a small lounge room, with every surface layered using a richly patterned material, it effectively conjures the place between imagination and actuality where stories live.

Inside this space, Maureen holds court for almost an hour and a half. In other hands, the show’s constraints – a single actor, a static set, very few props, a decent run time – might have prompted a tendency toward hyperbole in the performance, directing or scripting. But Ranney and Hawkins are justifiably confident and hold fast with a restrained approach.

Hawkins’ rendering of Maureen is wonderfully calibrated. The performer initially steps onto stage as themselves to briefly introduce the work, and then shifts before the audience’s eyes into character. Rarely does this kind of on-stage transformation work, but Hawkins physicality is so subtly powerful that the evolution feels nearly magical. Wrapping themselves in Maureen’s skirt, applying her lipstick and then settling into her chair, Hawkins falls away, making room for Maureen. Her lips are set differently, her limbs have a different relationship to her body, her voice is thinner from many more decades of use.

Jonny Hawkins’ Maureen has many stories to share. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

A young performer portraying an older character, especially an older female, always creates the risk of caricature. But Hawkins’ Maureen is an individual, and is treated as such – with the performance never reverting to stereotype.

This, too, is the power of the show’s script, which draws on the autobiography of Hawkins’ friend Maureen and on other older women’s experiences, to weave a fictional story. By respecting the complexity of the women’s lives and highlighting the intelligence and individuality of their perspectives, Hawkins has crafted a story that roundly refutes social constructions of age.

Rather than casting the wisdom of the elderly as relevant to a bygone era, Maureen: Harbinger of Death makes their stories searingly contemporary. Woven into the show are reflections on how to live with humour and courage, how to build a self and a community, and how to grapple with moral complexity and the ever-growing spectre of grief.

There are a few moments when the show breaks form, devolving from conversational storytelling into passages where Maureen delivers a montage of phrases that describe abstracted imagery or moments. These brief and impressionistic scenes have strong potential. They hint at the occasional friction that occurs when two people try to fully enter each other’s worlds and perspectives, or at the sense of cloudiness and disorientation that occurs inside a person’s mind when they try to pin down their story of self. But, in the show’s current rendering – where these breaks in tone are accompanied by only minor changes in lighting and sound design – the purpose of these passages remains opaque. To fully understand their significance, the audience likely needs to be supported with more atmospheric cues.

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While these moments aren’t perfectly dialled, they are well executed enough to not compromise the power of the show as a whole.

Maureen: Harbinger of Death is a beautiful ode to storytelling and to the complexity of older women. Often considered invisible, here they are brought gloriously into the spotlight in a work which is refined, but far from simple.

Maureen: Harbinger of Death is playing in Space Theatre at the Adelaide Festival Centre until March 18.

Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

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