The cast of Motherland | Metro Arts

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! No they’re not — they already came in 1940.

Who knew that Russian Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky married a Brisbane heiress and lived some time in that city after fleeing Russia for Paris when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in 1917?  Not this little black duck, any more than would most Australians citizens without a deep interest in Russian-Australian relations.

Kathryn Lyall-Watson has been intrigued by this story for many years, and after four years of research has produced her first play, a complex three-generation story about three very different women.

The first is Nell Tritton (Kerith Anderson), heiress to the famous Brisbane commercial family, who left Australia in the 1920s and worked as a foreign correspondent, eventually marrying Kerensky in 1940 and taking him back to Brisbane as part of his paranoid quest for safety in exile. The second is poet Nina Berberova (Barbara Lowing in fine form), a Russian exile in Paris, who has an erotic friendship with Nell during the 1930s. And finally there’s Alyona (Rebecca Riggs), fleeing Russia in the 1990s with her son and her crooked Australian boyfriend, only to be stranded in Australia after his failed business venture and some derring-do which involves him in the Fitzgerald enquiry.

And then there are the men (Peter Cossar and Daniel Murphy) almost interchangeable with their shaved heads, both of them playing multiple roles with such quick changes that it takes some time to work out who’s doing what, and with which, and to whom. How Lyall-Watson manages to cram these three disparate but interwoven plots into 90 minutes is a miracle, but somehow she does it, although it’s some time until it all becomes clear.

The best way to approach the play is not to try to work it out rationally, but to let the threads intermingle and ultimately form their own dense pattern, much as a Bach fugue does. This is a new and daring way of constructing a play, and Lyall-Watson is served well not just by her skilled five-person cast, but by director Caroline Dunphy, herself a qualified performer and teacher of the Suzuki Actor Training Method. The skills she learned here, about the complexity and subtlety of modern theatre, make her the ideal director for this multi-layered script.

The big question is whether Lyall-Watson has crammed too much into her play. On the surface a lesson about how historical events can shape relationships, it’s also an intense examination of ambition and love, exile and identity, and the tangled and often disastrous results of trying to have it all. The writing is very fine, with not a word out of place, and the characterisations complex and convincing, but in less accomplished hands it could have gone very wrong. In the end I think it triumphs, mainly because of the talented cast, who know how to portray these strong (women) characters and flawed (male) protagonists with the insight they deserve .

It’s not an easy play, but if nothing else it will reawaken your interest in the history of Brisbane, and perhaps lead you to follow the threads of Russian exile even further, to Trotsky and Frida Kahlo perhaps. For all its necessary sketchiness, it verges on the profound in many instances, and brings us face to face with a tumultuous century.

The details: Motherland plays the Sue Brenner Theatre, Metro Arts until November 16. Tickets on the venue website.