MTC-Sunday-photo-by-Pia-JohnsonVisiting the Heide Museum of Modern Art and art park is as Melbourne as throwing chips to seagulls on a cold bayside beach and having a flat white in a city laneway.

At least one visit is completed with wandering through Sunday and John Reed’s house and wondering what it would have been like to have lived there with them in Heidelberg in the 1930s–50s.

What art would you have made living with the unlimited love, sex and support of patrons while swimming in the river, feeding the chooks, and always thinking when and how badly it was all going to end?

For the Melbourne Theatre Company to not develop a play about the group of Melbourne’s most well-known and mythologised modernist artists would be sacrilegious. To place Sunday Reed – who didn’t make art – at the centre is the only choice.

The premiere of Anthony Weigh’s work would be glorious if it were only about art and creation and the house at Heide. That’s all there, but the house and art that was created isn’t seen because Sunday is about relationships, desire and the need to be loved, seen and respected.

Knowing that Sidney Nolan (Josh McConville) painted most of the Ned Kelly series there and recognising the work of Joy Hester (Ratidzo Mambo) and Albert Tucker fills the unseen spaces. And it’s fair to assume that people who see this work in this theatre can fill them in. But the joy of Sunday is that it doesn’t matter.

Anna Cordingley’s set reflects all and none of the art at the same time. Outlined with forced perspective, its brutalist-gray walls reveal stripes of the complex colours seen in Australian landscapes – supported with a discussion of the different blues of Australian cities so perfect that it will be quoted in academic writing about visual art.

With scenes in houses and inside spaces placing it perfectly in Melbourne at exact years, the design is mostly how Sunday sees her world, which eventually develops into a magnificent dreamscape under an oak tree by the Yarra.

However, nothing is taken away from caring about these people by not knowing their art or the space where they worked.

Director Sarah Goodes ensures that it’s easy to be intrigued to know more about the visual art but to always need to know more about the people who made it.

The script and story is based on what’s known, but it’s mostly about what isn’t known. It’s about the imagined meetings and conversations. It’s about Sunday and what might have driven her.

Nikki Shiels is Sunday. I can’t imagine the pressure of being called a muse. I know enough about being called a critic; it’s complicated.

But to have the expectation to inspire, and to worry about not being so perfect, smart and gorgeous that you make art flow, is so unrealistic that hiding any flaw or fear must become second nature.

To write about Shiels’ performance without using superlatives is impossible. To think about Sunday Reed and not imagine her performance may now also be impossible.

Shiels comes from the doubts that Sunday always hid behind confidence – confidence that came from knowledge, study and understanding. She lets us see the reason Reed is an icon, while always starting with a person who is flawed and hurt like all of us.

As Sunday was tempered by the security, frustration and, sometimes, anger of John, Matt Day supports Shiels as the husband who always let his wife shine while knowing her in ways she never wanted to know ­­herself. And Joshua Tighe as their adopted son Sweeney helps Shiels reveal part of the emptiness that drove Sunday.

To see such a complex and developed work about Melbourne on a Melbourne commercial stage is glorious. And to know that it’s a story that can be seen anywhere else without losing its strength is more glorious.

If you haven’t been to Heide, pack a picnic and see the work though new eyes. Don’t be at surprised if the people near you are also there because they saw Sunday and wanted to revisit and look at the sky through an oak tree.

Southbank Theatre – The Sumner, Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Performance: Friday 20 January 2023
Season continues to 18 February 2023
Information and Bookings:

Image: Josh McConville, Nikki Shiels and Matt Day in Sunday – photo by Pia Johnson

Review: Anne-Marie Peard