The Women In Black (Ladies In Black) – Part One

A case of mistaken identity

When you have a name like mine – Inese Arija Tenisons – there is never a case of mistaken identity. I actually think I am the only person in the world with this name, but if your name is Carolyn Burns, the odds are considerably higher that others might share your name  – or a close variation of that name, such as Carol Burns.

I confused Carolyn Burns, the playwright of Ladies In Black (an Australian musical with lyrics by Tim Finn – formerly of Split Enz and Crowded House, and based on the 1993 novel, The Women In Black by Madeleine St John), with the Brisbane born actress, Carol Burns. The play has a different name to the book because there is already a famous work with the same name.

I attended The Women In Black bookclub at Avid Reader last night (Tuesday 10 November 2015) and was keen to tell Fiona about my tenuous link to Carol Burns (a career actress since 1967, and more latterly, an esteemed director for the Queensland Theatre Company – QTC).

Carol Burns’ fame amongst the general populace is largely due to her starring in the now cult late 1970s television program, Prisoner, in which she played tough lesbian bikie, Franky Doyle. But I had ‘insider’ knowledge about Carol – I can identify her childhood home on Latrobe Terrace, Paddington, and knew her brother, Glen Burns, albeit through my sister.

Glen and a group of other boys were unique in the Red Hill environs in the mid-1970s for being bicycle enthusiasts – as per the Tour de France. Although lurid lycra suits are a common sight on the roads today, they were not in 1975 when these 16 and 17-year-old boys donned their skin-tight suits, mounted their ‘Rocket’ bicycles (purchased from Jack Pesch, a former cycling champion in the 1930s, who owned a bicycle shop in Petrie Terrace), and careered down the stomach-churning hill that is Cochrane Street, before the Brisbane City Council added speed bumps to quell the speed.

Magnificent as this feat was, it was somewhat over-shadowed by the fact that Glen’s sister, Carol, was an actress who managed to earn a living ‘treading the boards’. The suburbs of Paddington and Red Hill were yet to have their inner city renaissance, and many people associated those who lived in these suburbs as being immigrants or those ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’, so to have one of its residents making a living in the glamorous but notoriously fickle profession of theatre gave us all a sense of pride, and a dream that the impossible could be achieved.


The Women In Black (Ladies In Black)

So, I must admit, that I was initially disappointed to learn that the playwright was Carolyn Burns – a New Zealand-born journalist, not Carol Burns, my local hero. But this soon dissipated when the discussion got underway and we learned more about the play from Simon Phillips (the internationally-acclaimed director of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and  Love Never Dies), Carolyn Burns, and Deidre Rubenstein (an actress, who plays sales assistant, Miss Jacobs in the musical, and who was a confidante of the late author, Madeleine St John).

Deidre and Madeleine not only shared a spiritual journey, being sometime residents of the Universal Independent Ashram in London, but a witty and engaging correspondence. Deidre treated the audience to an excerpt of one of Madeleine’s blue aerograms which gave us further insight into her particular contradictory genius (part groovy counter-culture participant and part meticulous observer of the manners of contemporary society).

If you have driven around the central business district of Brisbane recently you may have noticed jaunty flags on bridges and other prominent places promoting The Ladies In Black, which is to have its debut in our fair city. And, this is only fitting, given that it was at Brisbane Airport that Tim Finn picked up the novel The Women In Black on route to Bougainville. When he landed, Tim found himself disorientated – five degrees off the equator, totally off the grid, in a place that was in recovery from a terrible war – but each night he would return to his room and find a gentle solace (and plenty of inspiration) from the book.

Diedre Rubenstein said Madeleine St John wrote The Women In Black after living in London for many years. “But she has totally captured the idiom and feel of 1950s Australia, in such a gloriously bittersweet, poignant way.”  Madeleine passed in 2006, after a long battle with emphysema, but Diedre said that she would have been very chuffed that a rock star had been involved in the adaption of her book, especially given her love of music, and not to mention the relationship she had with a guitarist in the Ashram.

The play is set in Sydney in the 1950s, the musical tells the story of bookish school leaver Lisa who joins the sales staff in a fashionable department store, F.G. Goode’s (loosely based on David Jones). Over a summer that changes her life, she befriends the colourful denizens of the women’s clothing department. Each of the characters are on the precipice of change – facing independence, working for a living, and what it means to be a woman.

Australia is coming to terms with the exotic customs of post-war European migrants, and the novel and play use the character of Magda  – a glamorous Slovenian refugee who is the guardian of the rose-pink cave of Model Gowns, to explore this theme. It was a deliberate decision to set the play in 1959 before the onset of the age of rock and roll, so the audience won’t hear any homages to Johnny O’Keefe and his ilk, but Tim Finn has penned a number of upbeat numbers which feature such winning titles as: She Just Kissed A Continental and Bureaucrat In Budapest.

Personally I can’t wait to see the production. Ladies In Black premieres in Brisbane in a season from 14 November to 6 December 2015 at the Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Click here for more information, or if you would like to make a booking.

A bit more about Madeleine St John

I can’t believe how this fascinating women (and author) escaped my attention. Madeleine St John holds the distinction of being the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction for her 1997 novel, The Essence Of The Thing. Her other books are:

  • The Women In Black (1993)
  • A Pure Clear Light (1996)
  • A Stairway To Paradise (1999).

I want to read all of them (after I have read The Women In Black), and I thought what a terrific opportunity for a writer to pen the life of Madeleine St John, but this has already been done by Helen Trinca whose biography – Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John was published in 2013.

A contemporary of other literary luminaries such as Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, Madeleine St John moved effortlessly through various artistic circles. The Australian film director Bruce Beresford is an admirer of Madeleine’s work, and it is rumoured that he has tried several times to get a film version of The Women In Black up and running (with either Isabella Rossellini or Monica Bellucci in the role of Magda) without success. Let’s hope he keeps trying.

And if per chance Gillian Armstrong happens to come across my humble post, may I suggest to her that Madeleine St John would be an excellent subject for her next documentary to follow on from those other great Australian icons, Florence Broadhurst and George Orry-Kelly. And Gillian – if you need a researcher, I would only be too happy to offer my services!


3 Comments on The Women In Black (Ladies In Black) – Part One

  1. Allan Gardiner
    November 11, 2015 at 12:23 pm (2 years ago)

    You would be a good literary biographer Inese.

  2. The Hipsterette
    November 11, 2015 at 2:06 pm (2 years ago)

    Thanks, Allan – I hope someone asks me to be one some day in the future!

  3. JaimeJak
    January 19, 2017 at 2:39 am (5 months ago)

    Good post! I read your blog often and you always post excellent content. I posted this article on Facebook and my followers like it. Thanks for writing this!


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