My Heart is Bathed in Blood

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

06/10/2006 - 21/10/2006

Otago Festival of the Arts

Production Details

By Michelanne Forster
Directed by Hilary Norris

My Heart is Bathed in Blood is based on a murder which shocked Dunedin in the mid-1950s when a female house surgeon shot and killed her unfaithful medical registrar lover. The production juxtaposes the fabulous music of the 1950s and the timeless music of Bach (alluded to in the play’s title), exposing the hearts of the two lovers; one a female house surgeon and the other a medical registrar.

Michelanne Forster recreated the Parker/Hulme murder, which had an equivalent impact on 1950s Christchurch, in her acclaimed Daughters of Heaven and her new work looks certain to rival that play’s explosive impact. Daughters of Heaven resulted in the press uncovering the long-hidden whereabouts of its two killer heroines; it will be interesting to see whether My Heart is Bathed in Blood has the same impact!

Introducing her play, Michelanne Forster writes: “When I lived in Dunedin in the late 1970s my first husband attended Otago Medical School and I did a year of nursing training. It was during this time I heard a story about a young woman House Surgeon who shot her former lover, also a doctor. The story stayed with me. Here were two people, not unlike my husband and myself, presumably dedicated to saving lives, yet they ended up destroying each other. What had happened? There were plenty of rumours, even back then, but no one really knew exactly why or how the tragedy had occurred because, of course, all lovers’ hearts are deeply guarded and private places. Many years later, I was approached by Unitec School of Performing and Screen Arts to write a play for their graduating students. I went back to Dunedin to research the case then let my imagination take over. Imagine the horror of knowing you had killed the person you thought you loved best in all the world…”

Mel Dodge
Douglas Kamo
Mary Sutherland
Clare Adams
Anna Nicholas
Sara-Georgie Johnston

Theatre ,

The terrifying power of passion

Review by Terry MacTavish 23rd Oct 2006

The 1950s was not the decade for a woman to break the rules. Bad enough to have been born clever and studied your way single-mindedly from dux to doctor, but then to ‘get yourself pregnant’ as well!!

The Fortune’s production of My Heart is Bathed in Blood explores/exploits the true story of Senga from Southland, a house surgeon at Dunedin Public Hospital who aborts her baby at the insistence of her lover, the dashing Medical Registrar, only to find he has tired of her anyway. So she buys a gun and kills him.

Writer Michelanne Forster and director Hilary Norris have their sights set on the social restrictions of the 50s, and from the opening scene with virginal white-clad bride, first tended then stripped by white-masked bridesmaids in glittering red, we are forced to confront the crippling conventions of the time.

The bridesmaids, employed throughout the play as symbolic manifestations of Senga’s ordeal, come to seem more like vengeful Furies, punishing girls who step outside the frame of the pretty picture. The first act concludes with a hideously striking climax as they rip red cloth from Senga’s prone body while she disastrously aborts herself.

Despite the comfortably familiar setting of the 50s there is indeed something of Greek tragedy to all this. We know the story, we know just what will happen and so there is a certain inexorable quality in the remorseless unfolding of events. Yet still I found myself holding my breath as she lifted the gun… Hilary Norris, one of the Fortune’s most experienced and reliable directors, has drawn strong, committed performances from her cast to create a powerful piece of theatre.

The talented Mel Dodge plays Senga with increasingly demented intensity, focused first on her career then on her lover. Personally I didn’t much like her, though I certainly sympathised with her. However this brisk uptight spinster with hair scraped back is clearly an irresistible challenge for the hospital’s golden boy, Bill Saunders (an assured performance by suave Douglas Kamo).

Skilfully modifying his seduction technique – "shall we finish our fascinating conversation about diabetic complications" – it is not long before he has her where he thinks he wants her. "I’ve always wanted to listen to someone’s heart without a stethoscope", she naively confesses. Silly boy. When she falls pregnant, of course she expects marriage, and it takes only a visit to Bill’s twinset-and-pearled mother in Christchurch to make him see this as a trap to be avoided at all costs.

Mary Sutherland is deliciously condescending as the unsympathetic mother while Sara Georgie Johnston’s charm is put to good use as the flirtatious nurse who next attracts Saunders.

Senga is flanked by ‘ordinary’ women, ex schoolfriends who either follow the rules or meekly accept the consequences of breaking them, and these parts too are confidently portrayed by Clare Adams and Anna Nicholas who manage to inject some much-needed humour. All four peripheral women double as the enigmatic bridesmaids/eumenides.

Long before Gray’s Anatomy hospitals have been established as sexy, perhaps because of the excitement engendered by the life and death combat, or maybe just the traditional nurse/doctor relationship, and a strong erotic urge underlies the hospital scenes. The nurses are all anxious to catch a husband, the doctors flit from flower to flower, and even the elderly male patients have just one thing on their minds ("Put it away, Mr Fooke, nobody’s interested").

The revolve set and the period costumes serve the stylised nature of Norris’s production well, all sparse black and white enlivened by dramatic dark red. The atmosphere is further enriched by the musical soundtrack, soaring Bach for emotional impact, scratchy 50s pop for historical ambience, ingeniously intertwined by young composer James Dunlop.

This play, rewritten as a premiere for Dunedin’s Arts Festival has created a great deal of renewed interest in Dunedin – the ODT gave two full pages to an intriguing analysis of "A Crime of the Times" – and enthusiastic houses for the Fortune production. [Note: the play was first commissioned by Unitec as a student production: see forum discussion- ed.]

Writer Forster has successfully turned tragic local history to playscript before, notably the Parker/Hulme murder [Daughters of Heaven] and the suicide of Larnach of Larnach’s castle. She is quick to concede that the records of the trial are only the starting point, that she has taken liberties with history and that her Senga is an imaginative yet legitimate construct.

Dunedin people, made sensitive by the current screening of the film on the Aramoana shootings [Out of the Blue], tend not to see it that way, perhaps because so many here seem to have known the families involved in the tragedy. The script itself also deliberately reflects local attitudes, from the jokey put-downs of rural Southland to the jibes at snobbish Christchurch: "You should never have sent me to Christ’s College; it’s a breeding ground for bastards."

The terrifying power of passion, however, is a timeless and absorbing enough theme to make this play one that should travel well. My Heart is Bathed in Blood, especially for those affected by the 1950s, is an undeniably shocking yet cathartic experience.


Hilary Norris October 24th, 2006

A correction to Terry's review . The composer was in fact James Dunlop, not Nigel,.

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Heart-wrenching tale of love lost well told

Review by Rosemary Penwarden 13th Oct 2006

So much of My Heart Is Bathed In Blood is local and personal. Not only the physical setting of Dunedin Hospital, but the emotional setting too, directly in the heart where love, despair, even madness, reside in some way, if only vaguely, in everyone’s life.

Along with playwright Michelanne Forster, director Hilary Norris has resurrected a very personal real-life tragedy from 1950s Dunedin and brought it back to us. The world premiere could only have been shown here.

I felt I knew the actors, as if they were acquaintances from my own life; nurses and doctors I knew; familiar sayings like "you made your bed, now lie in it"; the nurses’ home; music; Eskimo Pies.

The love affair was doomed from the start. Senga (Mel Dodge) was inexperienced in love. Bill (Douglas Kamo), on the other hand, had been dating for years. Senga’s intelligence and naivety drew him into the chase. Both actors gave strong and highly emotional performances. Senga’s decline from outstanding young doctor to a woman driven mad by anger and despair was painful to watch.

Claire Adams gave some light relief and a great deal of good old Southland friendship as Annie, Senga’s devoted buddy. Sara Georgie Johnson, Anna Nicolas and Mary Sutherland (Bill’s mother) gave strong, real performances.

I found at the end that I was still shuddering from the sound of the gunshot, and from dread- the dread of love gone so horribly wrong, of love turned to madness, of lives lost and wasted.

The Fortune Theatre was about two-thirds full for opening night. The encore heartfelt. My Heart Is Bathed In Blood is a true story of a real tragedy, extremely well told.


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