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The Shifting Heart at Seymour Centre

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by Emma Jane Explores (Emma Caldwell) (subscribe)
I'm a freelance actor, travel writer, photographer, foodie and attention seeker living in the lower North Shore. Check out my blog at for more.
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A Christmas Eve like no other
What does it truly mean to be labelled an immigrant? What sort of subtle (or unsubtle) racism and bigotry did new Australians in the 1950's face, and do they continue to face today? Richard Beynon's play, The Shifting Heart, is as relevant today as it was back then with this country's constant focus on immigration and restricting entry to Australia.

White Box Theatre has produced a provocative, sensitive and funny staging of Beynon's 1957 play, set in Collingwood, Victoria. The storyline centres on the Bianchi family, who emigrated from Italy eight years prior, building a life for themselves in Australia. We watch their struggle to assimilate and be fully accepted as Australians, from the seemingly harmless shopkeeper who calls the matriarch of the family "Mamma Macaroni", to full-blown racially provoked violence that ends tragically for the Bianchi family.

Ariadne Sgouros and Lucas Linehan
Ariadne Sgouros and Lucas Linehan / credit: Danielle Lyonne

Where the play is potentially problematic is in the handling of family and domestic violence with the Bianchi and the Pratt households both running into Christmas Eve trouble with two characters displaying drunken domestic violence towards their partners. It's shocking, and what's even more shocking is the way that the two victims of the abuse are then encouraged to rekindle and reunite with their partners. To me, this smacks a bit of the era - I don't think that sort of treatment of domestic violence and encouragement of the victims to return to their abusers would stand in a play written in 2018. Nevertheless, this problematic and era-specific part of the play is treated with the utmost care and sensibility. I did note that there was a warning alluding to violence in the play, however, felt that there could have been a stronger trigger warning specific to domestic violence as these fleeting moments are quite confronting.

Director, Kim Hardwick, has pulled together an impressive, intelligent and thought-provoking show which takes the audience through the entire gamut of human emotions. Her show has us laughing, gasping in shock, crying and hoping against hope that things turn out alright.

theatre, seymour centre, immigration, australian plays, performing arts, white box theatre
Tony Poli and Dina Panozzo / credit: Danielle Lyonne

Set and costumes by Isabel Hudson are spot on, with the weathered, double storey Bianchi house really creating the world of the play. Costumes are muted and simple, complimenting the storyline nicely with the only exception being a pair of grey pants on neighbour Leila Pratt (Di Smith) not really matching the colour scheme and looking a bit new & modern - but a very minute detail, in an otherwise flawlessly executed vision.

Lighting design by Martin Kinnane is wonderfully subtle, with his stages gently shifting to create the time of day changes (the entire play takes place over about 24 hours). Sound designer Julian Starr's work is similarly minimalist and subtle, to great effect.

theatre, seymour centre, immigration, australian plays, performing arts, white box theatre
David Soncin / credit: Danielle Lyonne

Tony Poli is a superb Poppa Bianchi, connected at the hip to his harmonica and delighting in teasing his wife. When tragedy strikes, he is hit hard and his ability to be completely vulnerable on stage is affecting. Dina Panozzo matches him perfectly as the pint-sized Momma Bianchi, the feisty matriarch with a heart of gold. Like Poli, Panozzo, brings gorgeous light and shade to her Momma Bianchi - she is effortlessly funny, and then heartbreaking and manages to switch between the two with ease.

Di Smith is a revelation as tough neighbour Leila Pratt. She is the exception to the racism the Bianchi family experience, often popping through the fence to chat with the family. Smith's performance layers her take-no-prisoners Mrs Pratt with warmth, sadness and tiny little shards of vulnerability, which is completely compelling watching.

theatre, seymour centre, immigration, australian plays, performing arts, white box theatre
Di Smith and Dina Panozzo / credit: Danielle Lyonne

David Soncin is a completely delightful Gino Bianchi, the wide-eyed young adult son just trying to fit in. Despite being much maligned within the family for being a bit hopeless and for going out every night dancing, Soncin perfectly captures Gino's heart of gold which makes it all the more tragic when he comes home, the victim of a racist attack.

Ariadne Sgouros's heavily pregnant Maria Fowler (nee Bianchi), the eldest daughter, is a pillar of strength and pragmatism despite her own home situation being turbulent. When tragedy strikes the family and she allows herself to break down, the effect is confronting and the actor's craft is truly on display here.

Lucas Linehan cuts a sinister, something is off kind of vibe as Clarry Fowler, Maria's husband. I was uncomfortable watching him interact with all the women onstage throughout the entire piece as he cuts quite an imposing figure and was often grabbing the women as if to direct them or stop them from doing something. It was he who is the most problematic character for me, and I got the feeling that it would just be better if he walked out of the Bianchi's lives for good.

theatre, seymour centre, immigration, australian plays, performing arts, white box theatre
Lucas Linehan / credit: Danielle Lyonne

Laurence Coy is fine in his double role as the abusive, buffoonish, Donny Pratt and Detective Sgt Lukie, however I would have liked to have seen his violent Mr Pratt as less of a joke. To me, a man who repeatedly abuses his wife should not be a source of humour, but again that is potentially an issue within the text itself and difficult to navigate in today's theatre.

The Shifting Heart runs quite long at 2 hours and I do believe there are opportunities to shave some of that down. I'm sure as the run continues this will happen. With that said, White Box Theatre and the Seymour Centre have put together a moving, provocative and warm production, that is as relevant today as it was back in 1957.
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*Emma Jane Explores (Emma Caldwell) was invited as a guest
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Why? An Australian play about immigration in the 1950's
When: Wednesday - Saturday 7.30pm, Wednesday - Thursday 11am (plus Q&A), Saturday 2pm
Phone: (02) 9351 7940
Where: The Seymour Centre, City Rd & Cleveland St, Chippendale
Cost: $45 Full/$35 Concession/$25 Student or Teached
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