Daughters of Heaven
a play by Michelanne Forster
Daughters of Heaven has already been performed at Court Theatre in Christchurch and Downstage in Wellington. Now its author, Michelanne Forster, has received a joint commission from Television New Zealand and New Zealand On Air to write a 90-minute television script based on it. So the play is destined to reach a wide audience. My guess is that it will quickly become central to the canon of indigenous New Zealand drama.
It’s hard to believe that the real event it centres on could ever have happened in New Zealand. Yet it couldn’t happen anywhere else. The unfolding story on stage is full of familiar national icons: a budgie called Billy, cups of tea, discontented Poms and so much talk of housework that sending blood-stained clothes to the cleaner before the police arrive almost becomes a legitimate act of tidying up.
Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme meet at school. One is the daughter of a fishmonger, the other of the rector of Canterbury College. They form an intense adolescent liaison. More and more they feel that the people around them are preventing them from being where they want to be – in their own fourth world of deities and idols, rituals, music, transformed identity and constant encounters with one another. They murder Pauline’s mother because they see her as the person who most gets in their way.
I saw Colin McColl’s superb Downstage production of the play. Glynis Angell and Tina Regtien played the two girls, Miranda Harcourt and Jennifer Ludlam their mothers, and Donna Akersten the Hulmes’s housekeeper who both helps the action along and is a one-woman chorus commenting on it. In this powerful and subtle staging it becomes apparent that the New Zealand character of the story comes not only from a precise use of detail but also from the social structure of a particular city – Christchurch in the nineteen-fifties.
Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker live out their passion and their fantasies at the centre of the forces that are gathering to drive them apart: class, homophobia, the Hulme family’s imminent return to England, values that crush the imagination.
Michelanne Forster makes the code to which they are expected to conform very clear. And then she penetrates the ambiguity that lies beneath the surface of the conventions that rule Christchurch. It’s an ambiguity that comes from the double messages embedded in the social system. Class divides the girls. Yet they were brought together in the first place by being at the same school, and that could only happen in a country where class divisions are attacked through education. Their intelligence is rewarded in a special liberal prison education programme as well as school; it’s treated as incomprehensible when they use it to invent alternatives to a society they view with contempt. They are lesbians, but the web of taboo they are caught in means they have no way of seeing themselves as lesbians. And they have obsessive crushes on Mario Lanza and James Mason. Above all they are adolescent. Glynis Angell and Tina Regtien as the two girls often break into giggles or childlike horse-play. Yet they take on a dreadful adult independence of action in deciding to ‘moider’ mother.
Nothing in the unfolding of the play up to the time of the murder is fully one thing or another. The very word the girls use, ‘moider’, with its post-war reference to comic portrayals of New York-Brooklyn cops, lies between joke and seriousness, fantasy and reality.
Deeply disturbing issues are raised in the sudden leap from all this ambiguity to the act of murder. The Downstage production leaves no doubt about its horror and there’s no attempt in the script to exonerate the murderers by coming up with social explanations for what they do. How could such a thing happen here, but then how could it happen anywhere?
The unanswerable question is present almost to the end. Then the final scene doesn’t quite stay with it. Instead there’s an attempt to bring about at least a provisional resolution as Hulme and Parker are released from prison and go out into the world again. But perhaps this kind of ending is necessary. Without it we might leave the theatre having to ask ourselves if, in the closest of human relationships, the wall between angry thoughts and murderous action may not be as impermeable as we think.
Shelagh Duckham Cox is a sociologist and writer who lives in Wellington.