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Cold Light: Canberra, cumquats and communism

Heather Wallace

If you think 1950s Canberra was sterile and sexless, Cold Light at The Street Theatre might change your mind. 

Based on Frank Moorhouse’s 2011 novel, the third and final in his Edith Trilogy, Cold Light is a reminder that the personal, political and place are all connected, particularly in Canberra. Gender politics, sexual politics and national politics all play out in Alana Valentine’s adaptation.

Edith Campbell Berry (Sonia Todd) returns to Australia after two decades in Europe working at the now defunct League of Nations. She’s with her second husband Ambrose (Tobias Cole), a British diplomat who’s also bisexual and a cross dresser. They have what some sneeringly call a “lavender marriage”, a term common to the era meaning one or more of the partners was homosexual. What it is first and foremost though is a loving marriage on their own terms. They both have outside lovers, evident from the opening scene where Edith encourages the man next to her at the Prime Minister’s dinner party to find out if she’s wearing ‘French knickers’, ie none.

After twenty years in Europe Edith and Ambrose have arrived in Canberra ostensibly for his High Commission posting but in reality because she is certain she will be appointed Australia’s first female Ambassador. For all her ambition and confidence being a woman is a hurdle too big to overcome in public life, to say nothing of having a communist brother who is back in touch after decades of family estrangement.

The strain of having to downgrade her ambitions while maintaining a ‘normal couple’ front puts an enormous strain on Edith and Ambrose’s marriage, neither can be entirely true to their natures in the new city being built around them. Sonia Todd brings to life Edith’s mannered facade, never flinching from showing her as a complex and conflicted character using whatever means are available to succeed. As Ambrose, Tobias Cole is a standout and lights up the stage whenever he appears, at once charming, vulnerable, defiant and utterly enchanting lip synching in satin drag!

Craig Alexander as Trevor Gibson Sonia Todd as Edith Campbell Berry. Credit: Shelly Higgs

Craig Alexander as Trevor Gibson Sonia Todd as Edith Campbell Berry. Credit: Shelly Higgs

This is a small but incredibly hardworking cast. Everyone except for Sonia Todd plays multiple characters, creating new personas with body language, costume and voice changes. In addition to the effervescent Ambrose, Tobias Cole is a shadowy ASIO agent, communist official and party goer. Gerard Carroll might look similar in several of his characters but you never confuse his meticulous public servant assistant with Richard of the wandering hands under the dinner table (who has the worst sex talk I’ve ever heard). Nick Byrne is a heavy lifter, he plays two Prime Ministers (Menzies and Whitlam, he is physically imposing as both), a former lover of Edith’s, an Israeli general and a grandiloquent town mayor, to name a few.

Craig Alexander makes Edith’s brother Fred both sympathetic and tragic and moves easily into other roles like an up and coming civic planner. Kiki Skountzos slides between Fred’s brash and dedicated communist partner Janice and Amelia, a German friend of Edith’s pretending to be Danish and yearning for fun and sophistication.

Adapting a 700-page novel that completes an interwoven trilogy is no small feat. The play has to convey enough backstory to give the characters depth and history while still being a standalone story accessible to those who haven’t read the source material. Like Edith herself, it is complex, challenging and ambitious. Some scenes could be pruned back or removed, although one scene outside of the main narrative highlighted the characters’ and the play’s underlying questions.

Edith and Fred visit their parents’ graves, estrangement and international politics having kept both away from their funerals some years before. They are joined by the town mayor, so pompous he brings his own podium to deliver a eulogy full of inappropriate non-sequiturs summarising the parents own unconventional lives. Nick Bryne relishes the self-importance of the character, and Craig Alexander’s reactions as Fred, chortling into a hat held to his face, are hilarious. As much as it’s played for laughs, this is an important scene, fighting for a better world is in Edith and Fred’s blood, both a burden and a passion to them both. Edith’s mannered facade cracks here and she is at her most vulnerable. The scene asks a question that torments Edith, are small and practical acts more effective than grand political action?

There’s another character I haven’t mentioned and it deserves accolades of its own: Canberra. The city isn’t just a backdrop it is present and shaping the drama at every turn. Both the set and lighting designers, Maria T Reginato and Linda Buck, have achieved something remarkable and memorable, using lights to project abstract versions of the city’s maps, plans and locations.

With so much information and history passing before you on stage, it’s worth knowing something of the background to both the city design and political history of the era. Fortunately, that’s easy to do and a visit to the Museum of Australian Democracy will set the context for the defeated referendum trying to ban the Communist Party in Australia. Likewise, the National Capital Exhibition at Regatta Point helps understand the significance of the Griffin’s plans for the new capital. Seeing Edith struggle to convince colleagues of why the city needed a manmade lake was a shock to me that Canberra’s landscape could have been completely different to the one I’ve known my whole life.

Special mention has to go to the one-liners that pepper the play, from sage advice for dealing with Canberra’s harsh winters by “filling your bicycle handles with hot water”, to Edith’s unconcerned response when confronted by an ASIO spook in her vandalised office, “So you’re not here about my cumquat tree?”

I’m using that the next time a spy turns up at my door!

the essentials

What: Cold Light
Where: The Street
When: Playing until 18th March 2017
How much: $39-$55

Feature image: Tobias Cole as Ambrose Sonia Todd as Edith. Photo credit: Shelly Higgs.


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author