2 SEP — 17 SEP 2022
DUNSTAN PLAYHOUSE, ADELAIDE FESTIVAL CENTRE
By James Murphy
State Theatre Company of South Australia’s presentation of the Performing Lines’ production of Sunshine Super Girl, is an innovative and inspirational biographical work about the life and triumphs of one of this land’s most accomplished and trailblazing athletes, Wiradjuri tennis great Evonne Goolagong Cawley AC MBE, written by Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai, Polish and Tamil Australian playwright Andrea James. While the Dunstan Playhouse stage is converted into a clay court and the four cast members are predominantly dressed in tennis whites, this play is about more than a game; it is an exploration of colonialism, racial prejudice and inequality, sexual abuse and predation in sport, tall poppy syndrome, and the challenges of existing in two worlds but not entirely belonging in either. It is also a work that seamlessly combines slapstick comedy, an endearing love story and graceful modern dance.
With 86 career singles titles, seven Grand Slams and a win-loss ratio of 81%, Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s international success could be likened to Sir Donald Bradman’s. Like the Don, Evonne, played immaculately by Ella Ferris, began obsessively hitting a ball against anything that she could with makeshift equipment day and night, forging world beating hand eye co-ordination. Unlike Bradman, she needed to overcome systemic and intergenerational barriers to succeed in a sport where the all-white mentality extended beyond just the on-court clothing. With her once-in-a generation talent, the kindness of strangers in her small town of Barellan, and the guardianship of tennis coach Vic Edwards (Kirk Page), a Colonel Parker-esque figure who later became a coercive controller and sexual abuser, she was able to achieve her childhood dream and compete, then win, then find love, at the hallowed grass courts of Wimbledon while royalty, the descendants of the crown that seized sovereign First Nations land, watched on and applauded.
Her success, though, served to alienate her from some her First Nations’ friends, who thought that she should be using her platform to advance the land rights debate and to campaign against South African apartheid. To “make it” in the world of the colonizer, Evonne was forced, often by coach Edwards, to sacrifice traditions and to prioritize her career; she was even barred from attending her father’s funeral. The trauma of this experience and the extent of Vic Edwards’ culpability could have been dramatized to a greater degree. While Evonne states that her mother never forgave her for this action, a recreation of those conversations could have demonstrated the emotional consequences of this further. This, though, is one minor gripe in a mostly flawless production.
Performers Lincoln Elliott, who plays Evonne’s husband Roger Cawley, Jacqueline Compton (Evonne’s mother) and Katina Olsen as well as Kirk Page all play countless characters, both animal and human, and aside from a few comical costume changes, they all do so by skilfully using their voices, physicality. They are well aided in this task by the sound and lighting design of Gail Priest and Karen Norris respectively. Costume designer Romanie Harper accurately recreates Evonne’s on court gear and transforms other cast members into caricatures of tennis greats. Under Andrea James’ direction, constant character transitions and context shifts never appear clunky or disjointed.
Sunshine Super Girl shines a light on the untold story of one of our nation’s greatest athletes but also on our country’s history as well. For this reason, it is not only super, it is essential.