A Response to June
By Bridget Mackey
In the opening moments of Patrick McCarthy’s play June, the titular character tells us that, like most women, she has a complicated relationship with speaking. For me, this line is the key to why she is talking to us now, and why she has chosen to break her year of silence. June is a middle-aged woman in the midst of grief, performed with empathy and grace by Caroline Lee. The monologue examines small human moments of a remembered life, and explodes into cosmic proportions, building to an expressionist portrait revealing June’s rich inner world.
Patrick’s writing is formally experimental, with a gentleness that encourages the audience to listen deeply. There’s perhaps a comparison to be made between Patrick’s writing and the work of American playwright Annie Baker (The Flick, John, The Aliens). Both writers depict the desires, events, joys and tragedies of everyday experiences.
There are certain questions that (well-meaning) people ask playwrights of their scripts, dramaturgical questions like: What does your character want? What is stopping them from getting it? And, what is at stake? (Note: the stakes must be high). The answers to these questions, when applied to a script, can lead to good drama. But I worry that the insistence on big dramatic action, and a forward-moving plot, denies the ability to write about our detailed and nuanced experiences of the world. Experiences like those Patrick explores in June, for example: what it feels like to get old, the loneliness of motherhood, the transcendence of falling in love, the mental and physical effects of isolation, the burden of caring for an ageing parent, and the way that memory creeps into the present moment.
(Actually, if you look and listen closely, as the work is encouraging you to do, you will find that Patrick’s play does adhere to ‘the rules’ of drama, but not in an obvious way. June has a strong want — she needs to tell us something urgently. What’s stopping June is that she is deeply ashamed to do so. The stakes are high for June because we are the only audience that will listen without judgement).
Emily Tomlins' direction gently guides the audience through June’s journey, preparing us bit-by-bit for the revelatory information that unfolds. Zoe Rouse’s set is a swampy, lush forest that creates a liminal dream-like atmosphere. In this magical forest, June is able to fully enter memories from her past, as well as communicate with the audience in the present. Lisa Mibus’ lighting helps the audience understand the subtle shifts of tone that take place throughout the play. Jess Keefe’s brilliant score carries the audience from the external to the internal, culminating in a symphony of voices that reflects back June’s declaration that ‘sometimes silence is very loud’.
When June says she has a complicated relationship with speaking, I understand what she means. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I developed the ability to speak my mind, particularly around men, for whom the flow from thought to speech seemed to come easily. I actually think this is one of the reasons I’m a writer — it has always felt safer to shape and construct a sentence on a page than speak in a room of people. And perhaps I’m a playwright because I prefer my characters to speak my ideas and opinions for me.
June tells us that not speaking was easy because of her invisibility in the world. She clarifies to us that she’s not a shut-in, and has managed to go about her day-to-day life in silence. June’s relationship to speech and silence reminded me of two essays that would make excellent companion pieces to Patrick’s play: Rebecca Solnit’s A Short History of Silence and Mary Beard’s The Public Voice of Women. Both essays provide a feminist perspective on experiences of speech and silence. In A Short History of Silence, Solnit draws a distinction between ‘quiet’ and ‘silence’:
Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words. English is full of overlapping words, but for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed, and quiet as what is sought. The tranquillity of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression, but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought and what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great are as different as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink.
The relationship between ‘quiet’ and ‘silence’ as described by Solnit is also one of the wonderfully theatrical things about June. We are, by the conventions of theatre, forced into silence. We are an audience, and we know that our place is to listen. In this way, we are safe listeners for June, because we can’t disagree with her, shame her, or talk back. But there’s a tension here because at any moment one of us could break the convention, potentially forcing June back into silence. When describing the experience of sitting with her dying mother, June says it felt like what she’s experiencing right now, with us — she was a passive observer with no ability to effect change. Reading Solnit and Beard’s essays might deepen an understanding of June’s personal experience, and how, as with everyone’s, it is tied to a larger socio-political framework. This isn’t to say those parallels aren’t already demonstrated in Patrick’s script, they most certainly are—especially for the close listener.
Bridget Mackey is a playwright, performer, dramaturge and teaching artist.
Bridget’s work often explores the space where opposing ideological, physical and spiritual boundaries meet. Bridget pursues formal experimentation in both her devised and written work, and invites collaboration early in the creation process. Through her role as a dramaturge and teaching artist she shares and expands her knowledge of the theatrical form. Bridget is currently developing The Exact Dimensions of Hell supported by Creative Victoria and the Australia Council with director Alice Darling, and The Witness, a commission for Malthouse Theatre, with director Bridget Balodis.