Hydra follows two Australian literary greats, George Johnston (Bryan Probets) and Charmian Clift (Anna McGahan). The pair moved to Hydra, the Greek Island, just after World War II to focus on their writing. There, they go on to throw themselves into their art and struggle with the highs and lows of their relationship.
Hydra is narrated by George and Charmian’s eldest son, Martin (Nathan O’Keefe), who interacts with the characters from time to time. This is a really interesting technique, but enables us to see his parents’ lives through a child’s eyes, as well as understand in some ways how his upbringing impacted both himself and his siblings later in life.
The play is an exploration of George and Charmian’s passion for writing. As much as it unites them, it ultimately tears them apart. While they work well together, it seems there is only room for one writer in the family. Charmian eventually lays her own work to rest to support George in writing his award-winning My Brother Jack, and later takes on a breadwinning role for the family. This hurts George’s pride and his staunch sense of masculinity, and is something that Charmian is never able to forgive.
Probets and McGahan are both very strong in their portrayal of George and Charmian. The intense contrast of the enamoured joy of their early relationship and the second half is hard to watch. There are huge changes when they have children: they’re poor, they struggle to write, and George is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Life is tough, they get spiteful, and things do not ever really get better. This is built up so much so that the tension during one of their final drunken fights is difficult to bare.
As always, the State Theatre Company do a beautiful job with the staging. It is simple, but so effective. The lighting for day and night in Greece is beautiful, and the slight difference in warmth that changes when they return to Australia changes the atmosphere on the stage. One stand out scene is when Charmian swims in the Grecian sea alone at night. The water ripples over her body, the stars hang low in the sky, it feels so real.
Hydra is a wonderful and intense exploration of one of Australia’s most famous literary couples. Writing brings them together and rips them apart. It’s sometimes hard to watch, but it feels real and relatable in many ways.
4 out of 5 stars