Chicago Theatre Review
To Begin Again in Australia
Belfast Girls – Artemisia
In the early nineteenth century colonial authorities wanted new blood for Australia. In order to attract female settlers to make the long, treacherous journey to the land down under, because men outnumbered women there eight to one, the Orphan Emigration Scheme was devised. The Australian government promised to fund all transportation costs, in addition to providing the women with a trousseau of clothing, appropriate religious literature and wooden traveling crates. There were, however, very strict guidelines for any woman wishing to take advantage of this plan. The girls had to be between 14 and 18 years of age, in good health, “imbued with religion and morally pure” and possessing necessary industrial skills.
As a result of The Great Potato Famine, the workhouses and poorhouses of Ireland were overflowing with the poor and starving. This opportunity to start over again became lucrative to Irish women. When British girls refused the offer (because they knew Australian men were mostly convicts), Lord Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the colonies, was informed that a large number of well conducted young Irish women were eager to take advantage of Australia’s generosity. Thus it was that in 1850 a ship filled with 185 women, who were neither “orphans,” of the required age, morally pure nor possessed of any skills other than prostitution, begging and thievery, set sail for a three-month the journey to Australia.
Of all the Irish women aboard the sailing ship Inchinnan, departing from Belfast to eventually dock in Sydney, Australia, the Belfast Girls were the most notorious. Known to be the most belligerent, these young women were often drunk, morally loose with the male sailing crew and who frequently fought with the other women. The fictional story of five of these women is told in Jaki McCarrick’s stirring tale of survival and ultimate friendship.
McKenzie Chinn leads the group of ragtag Irish immigrants as Judith. A tough woman of mixed race, Ms. Chinn’s Judith inspires the others, keeps the peace and raises suspicions and problems with her own behavior. As the last girl to bunk in with the other girls, Cassandra Schiano is excellent as Molly. She plays this character as a gentile, innocent and kinder girl than the rest, with a dream of becoming an Shakespearean actress someday. When her secret identity is later discovered, the other women turn on her, brutally punishing Molly for her deception. Hannah, an Irish lass pinning all her hopes on becoming a respectable, married woman. She dreams of perhaps having her own servants to wait on her, as she sashays around the room. She’s played to haughty and dreamy perfection by Caitlin Chuckta. Sarah Jane is the simple country girl, obsessed with mending her many bonnets and re-reading the letters sent to her by her brother, already in Australia. Patty Malaney plays her with guarded knowledge and a few secrets of her own, which the girls finally learn by the end of their voyage. Lindsay Tornquist, who sports the most natural Irish dialect of the actors, is Ellen. At first a quiet follower, Ellen emerges as a strong, kindly young woman with a sweeter disposition and more generous heart than anyone expects.
This first full production by Artemisia is directed with assurance by Julie Proudfoot. The action is brisk and thoughtful, made claustrophobic by the small cabin of the ship in which the ladies live. Costumes, hair and makeup by Alice Broughton and Angela Driskill complete the effect of an army of determined, nineteenth century women on the brink of making their new lives in a new world.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 16-June 14 by Artemisia at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Rd., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 832-819-4336 or by going to www.artemisiatheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.