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Theatre review: Chalkface

Angela Betzien’s Chalkface, premiered by State Theatre SA, is a zany portrait of an Australian public primary school. It holds up a cracked and grimly funny mirror to the end-result of years of state neglect and disrespect for teachers and their profession.

Aug 10, 2022, updated Aug 10, 2022
Catherine McClements as burnt-out teacher Pat Novitsky and Stephanie Somerville as optimistic newcomer Anna Park in 'Chalkface'. Photo: Matt Byrne

Catherine McClements as burnt-out teacher Pat Novitsky and Stephanie Somerville as optimistic newcomer Anna Park in 'Chalkface'. Photo: Matt Byrne

Many essential institutions have been exposed and found wanting during the pandemic – the health system is one, and another is education. Not the lavishly funded private system, but the increasingly impoverished and derelict public sector. Chalkface is both a scathing account of failure and a panegyric to the commitment and persistence of professionals trying to do better with less, in a time of COVID and numbing bureaucracy.

Betzien, in her program note, describes Chalkface as “a whack love letter to all those teachers who taught us to read, write and most importantly, to think”.

Pat Novitsky is one of those teachers. In her fifties, smart and inspirational, she was progressive in the glory days of the later 20th-century innovation, but is now is burnt out, cynical and haunted by futility.

While on a recent summer cruise to Hawaii, her close friend and colleague, Sue Handley, dropped dead in front of her. No one from West Vale primary school attended the funeral. Pat is confronting a professional future that is brutish, thankless and soul-destroying. And, as a final straw, there is the unexpected re-enrolment of her nemesis, the problem pupil ­– Hurricane Little.

The arrival of Anna Park, a first-year teacher with a Masters in Neuroplasticity and Child Behaviour, is another provocation. Anna’s youthful zeal and optimism triggers bitterness and scorn, especially when the new teacher decides to take on the Hurricane.

Director Jessica Arthur has allowed Betzien’s cracklingly funny, freewheeling text its frequently absurdist and eccentric streams of consciousness, as well as giving exuberant latitude to the excellent and inventive actors.

Ailsa Paterson’s kitchen-sink staff-room set is mordantly detailed, with conspicuously peeling wall paint, shabby mid-century lounge chairs, classroom cast-offs, pigeonholes festooned with sloganeering clip-art, a kitchenette complete with oversize Best Teacher mugs and, to the chortling pleasure of the audience, a catering-size tin of Nescafe Blend 43.

Mark Shelton’s lighting brings warmth to the human comedy of the staff room, a dreamy pastel tint to the fleetingly quirky interludes between scenes, and flashes and blackouts in the unexpected incendiaries of the final scenes. Composer Jessica Dunn’s sound design expertly captures both quickfire dialogue and detonations, and her incidental compositions for chimes, bongo beats and jaunty piano provides an upbeat offset to the darker satire of the action.

Chalkface is set in a school staff room featuring peeling paint, shabby furniture and sloganeering clip-art. Photo: Matt Byrne

The performances are engaging and the characterisations, witty and crisp. As Denise Hart, Susan Prior unravels from the opening scene in a gentle reverie of her own. She provides interpretative dance with maracas between scenes, and her burgeoning pregnancy acts as a timeline for the school year. Michelle Ny as Ms Filch, the financial controller-freak with a shady past in banking, patrols the photocopier and the stationery cupboard like a hawk and her grammatically garbled announcements over the PA system are a hoot. Ezra Juanta as Steve, the PE teacher, half crippled and in rehab after a Hurricane Little prank, is especially vivid when his paranoia about a certain black Honda Civic accelerates in the final scenes.

The school principal, Douglas Housten, played with smarmy relish by Nathan O’Keefe, is the comic villain. Nicknamed Thatcher, after the Dame of Neoliberalism, he is the clamp on the purse strings, the sweeper away of ethical inconveniences, the oily go-between for the staff and parents. O’Keefe’s rictus smile is the emblem of beleaguered management but, in his speech when he asks a teacher to squeeze a stone, he has a chance at riposte. “Any blood coming out?” he asks. “No? That’s my job as a public school principal.”

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Susan Prior’s character, Denise Hart, unravels from the opening scene. Photo: Matt Byrne

As Anna Park, the neophyte teacher with a head full of ideas, Stephanie Somerville is excellent. Betzien has written a millennial with political integrity and a genuine sense of vocation. We respond to her intelligence and willingness to make more of education opportunities even when policies are mechanical and obtuse. She is not an easy target for Pat Novitsky and their scenes together are highlights of the play.

Catherine McClements, as Pat, is the sure centre of the production. From the opening scene, McClements establishes this commanding but broken and embittered teacher who is fed up with the system but also mired in nihilistic defeat. She is canny and quick and her quips stay with us. On NAPLAN: “You don’t fatten the pig by measuring it.” It is she who wryly reminds us that the word pedagogy not only refers to the art and science of teaching, but derives from the Greek “paidagogos”, denoting the slave who accompanied their master’s children to school.

McClements’ offbeat scene with Somerville in the stationery cabinet is a key moment and an indication of the ambition of Betzien’s sometimes diffuse and scattered text. It is a dialogue (and also a truce ) between one generation and the next, and the re-invigoration of the tired and burnt-out by an energised new guard.

For all the jokes and slapstick, the whimsy and bleak comedy, Chalkface is telling us about a crisis in our schools. And it is a lesson to be heeded before it’s too late.

Chalkface, a State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company co-production, is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, until August 20. It will also play at Sydney Opera House from September 15 to October 29, and in Parramatta and Canberra in November.

Read our recent interview with Catherine McClements here.

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