Noni Hazlehurst is an artist, educator and activist. She is beloved and awarded for her work across music, stage, television and film. For several years she has been performing Mother, playwright Daniel Keene’s deft and poetic work on a woman untethered from the everyday. Using Mother as a starting point, we invited Noni to consider ideas of madness.
Madness thrives on chaos. Sanity depends on peace. Madness has different meanings for different people.
I can only describe my own definition of it - one that has changed over the years. I’ve learned lessons about the effects on all of us – particularly children – of the overly judgmental and reductive demands of our way of life.
Even an occasional opportunity for peace is better than none. But we live in a state of chaos, especially in cities, where the madness is magnified. Our environments are defined by constant bombardment of all the senses, hard surfaces, greyness, with only perfunctory and confined examples of nature to soften the landscape. Wherever we go, we’re surrounded by screens and headlines, which either distract us from, or alert us to, news of imminent disaster.
The pressures of our world drive adults crazy. We know that. So what is it doing to our children?
Children are growing up more engaged with the world than any previous generation. But they’re also clearly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that they’re not always able to assimilate or contextualise, given their limited experience. It’s almost impossible for our kids to find peace. The prevailing ‘popular culture’ experienced by children today focuses on reality shows which are actually devoid of reality, but which eerily crawl into the zeitgeist to become a new reality.
Although the research into the developmental effects on children of our current technology dominated lifestyles is in its early days, in the studies already done, the conclusions are clear. A dependence on technology at the expense of human interaction has a detrimental outcome for children. And the ever growing statistics show that anxiety, depression, self-harm and worse are almost becoming de rigueur for younger and younger children.
And while we try to do what we can to protect our children, our eyes are fixated on screens. We don’t make eye contact with each other. We’re all on our individual treadmills, trying to stay out of trouble, and working hard to pay off the debts we’ve chosen to accumulate. And there’s such a preponderance of horrifying news that we retreat to our fortressed cells and lock ourselves in to rest, before donning our armour to do it all again tomorrow.
The madness everywhere makes us fearful. We know there are people who’ve been driven to the point of craziness by the madness, and we try to avoid them.
It makes us feel overwrought, overcome, even paranoid. Everything is a fight. It’s US v. THEM. There’s no peace. It’s war.
That’s no way to live.
Everyone needs and wants to feel connected. Separation and isolation play a big part in madness. As nature demonstrates, we need each other.
Without leaving the city altogether, the only way to provide the sustenance for the mind, body and spirit that nature bestows, is exposure to and involvement in the arts.
There is overwhelming evidence that a life lived without free access to enjoyment of, and participation in, the arts is a life severely compromised.
Without exposure to high quality art in any or all of its forms – theatre, music, dance, painting, literature – there is little available to ameliorate the effects of the madness.
The arts help us to live our lives. There lies their wonder and potency.
Beautifully made art, when executed at the highest level, brings peace – it reminds us that we are not alone, that we share more similarities than differences, that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is, or might not even be the way it seems. The arts teach us that everyone has a story.
The arts allow us to reflect and consider. A work of art can have a palpable effect on our consciousness, and when it does, it stays in our memories forever.
Madness manifests in the brain. Sufferers become detached from the real world. But what actually is the real world right now?
The arts speak to our brains, but also more importantly, our hearts. They can restore and comfort tired spirits and help to address feelings of isolation and confusion. And God forbid, they can encourage a response which triggers reflection on the status quo and on our own perceptions of reality, which can lead to a desire for change.
The arts speak truth to power, shining a light into dark corners, which is the bleedingly obvious reason why arts budgets are being slashed, and artists commonly vilified. We’re now labelled ‘elites’, generally by people who fit well and truly into that category themselves. There is nothing elite about being an artist in this country, I assure you!
Official State and National art is sanctioned, but for the tens of thousands of practitioners whose vocation is to make art, and who want to develop their skills through practise, and who make a massive contribution financially and culturally to the country, the message is clear. Go away and get a real job.
Most artists have a real job, and most of them work at it day and night. They’re just not paid for their work. In official terms, we have no value and are surplus to requirements. And it’s a vicious cycle – how can we argue for the value, the preservation and support of the arts when the public is constantly presented with ordinary examples, not the extraordinary?
Just as the knighthood for Prince Philip was deemed mad by many, the recent further slashing of the ABC’s budget to nigh on unsustainable levels, and the concurrent announcement of nearly $50 million to commemorate Captain Cook’s arrival strikes me as gobsmackingly crazy.
The removal of arts programs in schools, which all available evidence suggests are incredibly valuable, while providing $250 million for school chaplaincy programmes is positively bonkers.
Not just children, but everyone fares better if the arts are a meaningful component in their lives. Surely it is the definition of madness to ignore overwhelming evidence?
Yet part of the madness is that many of us are doing just that – choosing to ignore the truth in favour of expediency or the preservation of power and privilege. Anything other than the official view is deemed fake.
Which explains why the arts and artists are considered so damn pesky. Creativity doesn’t toe a line. Who knows where great art comes from, but anyone lucky enough to experience it can attest to its power.
The character of Christie in Mother is the perfect example of someone not dealing with the madness and cruelty of the world. Hers is a life barely lived, due to familial and societal neglect, and through a lack of empathy and support. She is perceived as mad because she is disconnected from the world and utterly alone. By choice.
With no advantages, no significant others, no education, and with her experience of life limited and compromised, she cannot and will not live in the so-called real world. She’s one of the many people on the outer peripheries of society who speak the truth, and are called mad for their trouble.
The response to the play has been humbling. We have somehow managed to create a work which moves many people to feel empathy for all the lost souls in the world, sometimes for the first time. With Daniel Keene’s beautiful text, Matt Scholten, my director and dear friend, and I have tried to create a safe space where you can spend a little while in someone else’s shoes. Where you can hear Christie’s story and begin to understand and to feel empathy.
Empathy is in very short supply, or so it would seem. The arts remind us that it is in fact everywhere. We are all born with it. No child is born a bigot - it’s adults who create intolerance. And the arts, particularly theatre, can touch us in a way nothing else can, and connect us to our fellow human beings, showing us a way through the madness.
Daniel Keene writes about people who fall through the cracks, those for whom hard work will never be rewarded by prosperity, and who need our help and compassion.
At its bottom line, the play’s message is a plea for kindness and empathy, and I look for that in all the work I choose. I want to be part of stories that are worth telling, that add something useful to the sum of human existence. And the gift of Mother is the perfect vehicle for me to nail my colours to the mast.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to perform it in my home state, and I look forward to your responses.
Image credit: Noni Hazlehurst in Mother at Belvoir Theatre. Photo: Brett Boardman.
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Noni Hazlehurst AM is one of Australia’s favourite and most respected and awarded actors.
In late 2016 she completed a second sell-out tour of Mother, for which she earned a Helpmann Award nomination for Best Actress. Earlier this year she performed a sell-out season of the play at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre, once again to critical acclaim. This year she has filmed A Place to Call Home – The Final Chapter bringing the much-loved series to its conclusion.
Other recent credits include feature films Ladies in Black, Truth and The Mule, and television projects The Broken Shore, Redfern Now and The Letdown for the ABC.