Anyway. So I’ve been holding off writing about it, and trying to think of something meaningful and good to say, and that groundbreaking moment of insight still hasn’t hit me, so I thought I better write about it before it, you know, closes, and I don’t have a chance to talk about how great it was.
Because it is a great, great show. I was really worried going in that it couldn’t possibly live up to my expectations of it, which were high, but it did. In a different way than I thought it would.
Ellen (Belinda Bromilow) is in her thirties, alone in a city where she knows no one, a place that doesn’t feel like home. This Year’s Ashes is about her desperate search for connection – with someone, anyone, and finally, the right one. It’s also about cities and their characters, communities and belonging, and realising that you are not as awful as you think you are.
I have to confess – at the end of the first act, I felt a little wary. Ellen seemed too messed up, too tragic, and I have read enough of both good and bad romance to know that a) this is usually a set up for someone to swoop in and save the heroine, which is a trope I hate, and b) this creates a lopsided narrative, because it’s hard to understand what the swooper is getting out of saving the swoopee. Initially, this is how I felt about Nathan Lovejoy’s Adam (one of the several characters he plays in This Year’s Ashes). I didn’t understand his intense desire to get to know Ellen, because it seemed like Ellen needed to sort out her life first before she could even think about having a productive relationship.
The second act, however, made me realise that my initial assessment was wrong. What This Year’s Ashes does very well is execute what is called in the study of romance (wait a second while I put on my academic hat) the black moment or the point of ritual death. This is the point in a romance where it seems like there is no possibility of a happy ending – that barriers are insurmountable, and that the ending will inevitably be tragic. At interval in This Year’s Ashes, it’s nearly impossible to see how things can possibly end well for Ellen as she is now.
If you go to see this play for a pure love story – girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy again – then you... probably won’t be disappointed, but you’ll be missing the greater romances in this story. While the romance between Ellen and Adam is lovely, it is very conscious of being nascent (if it couldn't be any more obvious, the play ends at the beginning). Unlike a traditional romance, there is no guarantee that Ellen and Adam will live happily ever after together. What is guaranteed, though, is that things will be better for Ellen. And not just because of Adam.
There are three romances in This Year’s Ashes – Ellen’s romance with Adam, her romance with Sydney, and her romance with herself. Her romance with Adam is tied up with her romance with the city – in fact, one could probably date the moment of her falling in love with both to Adam’s New Year’s Eve monologue at the beginning of the second act (which is, by the way, one of the most beautifully evocative pieces of writing I’ve ever had the privilege to hear on stage – it alone is worth going to see the show). Growing throughout, though, is Ellen’s romance with herself. In the theory of the point of ritual death, once the heroine has passed beyond that black moment, she experiences a sort of rebirth. She reclaims life, she reclaims self, and she regains the power to shape her own society. Once she has passed through this point – once the sun has risen, as it does so powerfully in the play’s false ending – she is free to make her own life.
Ellen’s ritual death is a sort of drowning – drowning in a sea of people who do not know her, a city that’s strange and unfamiliar, her only touchstone with reality and community listening to the Ashes on the radio. What I loved about This Year’s Ashes is a trope that is prominent in really good romance. No one saves Ellen. She isn’t dragged to shore. She isn’t picked up by a passing boat marked HMAS Romantic Hero. She isn’t even caught in a fortuitous current that miraculously sweeps her to land.
No. Ellen learns to swim.