A changing room.
A changing room at a public pool.
A woman sits silently in one corner, staring at the space.
A woman in bathers and a swimming cap.
Staring at the space and into space.
Lockers. Seats. Rubber matting on the floor.
Watching. Maybe waiting.
Lockers. Seats. Rubber matting on the floor. No one else.
Silent and watching.
There’s a voice on the woman’s mind. She can barely hear it. Sentence fragments that evoke a memory, but of what? In the stillness and silence of the changing room, the woman sits, listening and waiting. And we wait with her.
Minutes later another woman – younger – enters the locker room, lost in her own thoughts, going through her post-swim routine. Another body in the space affects the first woman in the smallest of ways. Her hands start to curl up, fingers dragging along her bare legs.
The younger woman showers and then moisturises her skin and does her hair and slowly gets dressed. She gets a phone call and then another. And another. All the same phone call. A call from her nana asking her when she’s going to be home for breakfast.
The first woman watches the second but the second is so lost in the ritual of getting ready to leave, she doesn’t notice the other woman for a long time. Not until she starts humming along to the music in her headphones.
The first woman, who cannot remember her own name, thinks the words on her mind are lyrics to a song, so the younger woman scrolls through her phone to try to help the older woman figure out what the ear worm or “sticky song” is. And it’s this simple moment of connection that draws the two women to each other and starts to draw their stories out.
Playwright and director Liv Satchell’s I sat and waited but you were gone too long is the first play in her Grief Trilogy, a series of plays that explores encounters in public spaces – where strangers open up about their deepest secrets, find connection and honesty, care and joy, if not answers or resolutions.
I sat and waited is Satchell’s first play, written during her time at VCA, studying a Masters of Directing, and was first presented as part of the Explorations season at La Mama in 2016. The second and third plays, my sister feather and let bleeding girls lie, were produced in 2018 and 2021 and this year, the entire body of work is being presented over three weeks at La Mama Courthouse.
I loved those plays a lot and it’s so pleasing to have them collected together, allowing people to see this first play – finally – in a full production and to revisit plays two and three over the next couple of weeks. Indie theatre in Melbourne so rarely has return or encore seasons and it’s a real gift to have Liv’s work presented in total in this way.
As with the later works, Liv’s text (developed in collaboration with her actors, in this case Emily Tomlins and Chanella Macri) is layered and complex – even though the scenarios are simple and straightforward in their way. “Two women meet in the locker room of a public pool” could be anything, but as told in the name of this triptych of plays, it’s a meditation on grief.
The language is poetic and truthful, as the unnamed woman struggles to articulate herself and the younger woman must hold it together while her morning is interrupted by phone call after phone call from a grandmother suffering dementia.
As if we needed more proof that she is one of the best actors on our stages, Emily Tomlins is able to hold the audience in rapt attention, even sitting alone, in silence or reacting to a disembodied voice. There’s a soulfulness in her eyes that projects sorrow without words and even the smallest of body movements speaks volumes.
Chanella Macri’s Ellen is the louder and more verbally expressive of the two characters and yet even the routine of watching her get dressed is full of warmth and honesty and comedy.
Though the show begins in silence, there are confronting moments of keening and crying and desperation that feel almost overwhelming in the moment. But the play also articulates exquisite moments of joy and kindness. There might not be ready answers, but a kind word and some small advice can be enough to keep going.
Two women standing side by side.
Side by side in an otherwise empty changing room.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
I sat and waited but you were gone too long closes tomorrow night at La Mama.
I recommend all three plays wholeheartedly. Liv Satchell's Grief Trilogy is an incredible achievement.
Photos: Darren Gill