Diving for Pearls
This cleverly written play is set around the closure of a steel mill in a coastal, industrial town, not because the mill is inefficient or the company is running at a loss, but because the site has become valuable real estate.
Den, the quiet plodder, is facing an uncertain future - hedoesn’t want to change - Barbara (his first love) does. The problem is that her ambitions are unrealistic. An exploration of hope, loss, ambition, greed and the triumph of character in adversity, Diving for Pearls is, at times confronting, but with a very Australian humour that comes from the difficult situations the characters find themselves in, and the way they choose to deal with them.
“… a strong sense of purpose and warmth… enjoyable and life affirming...” - Arts Magazine.
Duration: 145 mins (includes 20 min interval
Contains strong language and adult themes
This cleverly written play about restructuring and redundancy in working class Australian towns will keep you glued to your seat as the characters unfold their stories with great Aussie colloquialisms - and the odd bit of swearing! It is a reality play that you can relate to on a personal level.
Diving for Pearls is a very rich piece set around the closure of a steel mill in a coastal industrial setting in the early 90s, not because the mill is inefficient or the company is running at a loss, but because the site has become valuable, prime real estate.
Den, the quiet plodder, is now facing an uncertain future - he doesn't want to change - Barbara (his first love) does. The problem is that her ambitions are unrealistic.
‘...and I don't mind Housing Commission, I never have, but we've all lived in each other's pockets for too long. I've won every prize at bingo, I've borrowed every decent video, and I'm starting to go off the football...’
In Diving for Pearls, Katherine Thomson explores hope, loss, ambition, greed and the triumph of character in adversity, "I didn't want to write about victims."
Although it is at times confronting, there is a lovely, very Australian humour that comes from the difficult situations the characters find themselves in and the way they deal with those situations.
‘A play about change and how we cope with it.’ - Dr Tess Brady
Bleakness pervades a play about the evils of economic rationalism.
THE bleakness of Katherine Thomas'Diving for Pearls is self-evident. In the midst of a shifting industrial landscape, with its buzz-words of restructuring, redeployment and redundancy, Thomas's characters desperately try to carve out decent lives for themselves. For a middle-aged woman such as Barbara, with little education and little prospect of obtaining a well-paid job, it is clear that social mobility is an aspiration rather than a possibility. Equally doomed are unskilled workers, such as Den, whose fates are decided by corporate bosses far removed from the factory floor.
Even the well-educated Ron, whose actions help precipitate the factory's closure, is ultimately a victim of the same impersonal economic imperatives that shatter Den's life. The relationships that unfold against this gloomy backdrop are predictably fragile and dysfunctional.
It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the pessimism that pervades the play. From the opening scene, which alludes to the funeral of a mate who killed himself after being retrenched, to the final pages in which Den is not only retrenched but also ditched by the woman he loved and about to lose the roof over his head, there is an almost relentless focus on the powerlessness and misery of the central characters.
While it is important to explore the bleak industrial milieu of the setting and its impact on the lives of the characters, it is also important to recognise that the play has moments of affirmation and hope.
Towards the end of the play Barbara reflects on the life she and Den might have had - ``diving for anything...pearls....'' The play implies that the battlers, no matter how skilfully they dive, will only ever find ``dirty old pennies'', but a more positive reading would suggest that even in the most desperate circumstances there are occasionally pearls to be found.
On this reading, the central metaphor of the play reminds us that in life there are gems among the dross, fleeting moments of happiness and beauty to be treasured even as our lives become more unstable and fragmented.
This is seen most vividly in the character of Verge. An archetypal figure in literature is the Fool or Idiot who utters apparent truths.
In Diving for Pearls, Verge fulfils a similar role and her frankness is both refreshing and disquieting. Barbara claims to love Verge but she nevertheless makes it clear that there is no place for her daughter at this stage in her life.
Yet, while the sudden reappearance of Verge undoubtedly brings complications to Barbara's new life, she also offers a love that is almost child-like. It is Den who is most able to appreciate these qualities in Verge, and their conversations offer rare moments of emotional affinity and even joy in the play. She also supports him, at some cost to herself, in his futile public stand at the end of the play.
Like Verge, Den is an easily overlooked pearl in Barbara's life, remaining loyal to Barbara despite the rebuffs and bullying tactics. His love is selfless and unconditional. He admires Barbara's energy and persistence (``Wouldn't be too many around like you. At least you haven't given up.'')
Barbara, on the other hand, while conceding his essential decency, tries to change Den into something more compatible with her own ambitions. For a short time it seems that the tenuous relationship between the two might survive, but it quickly implodes with the closing of the factory and Barbara's failure to gain employment at the resort.
The final straw for Barbara is Den's decision not to accept severance pay, a position she cannot understand. Thus while Den perceives something precious in Barbara and is prepared to wait for a reciprocal feeling, Barbara must be off seeking something better.
It is Barbara's tragedy that she is too restless and embittered to see the pearls that have been all the time within her reach. For her, pearls represent material rather than spiritual wealth. As she says to Den, ``Money's not to live on. It's just to use so you can get more.''
Her dogged determination to better herself is both her strength and her downfall - she has the capacity to bounce back after a setback but cannot recognise the worth of the love that Verge and Den offer.
More broadly, the workers can be seen as the pearls of an older working-class culture standing in sharp contrast to the corrupt values of the new economic order. Unions are presented favorably in the play and some sense of the values of solidarity, hard work and loyalty are conveyed through Den's speeches.
Diving for Pearls, then, offers more than an insight into the impact of economic rationalism on the lives of a collection of battlers. Barbara may be cruel in her treatment of both Verge and Den, and nave in her expectations, but she also has resilience and a dogged determination to better herself. Although Den's stand at the end brings no reward, he has the moral courage to speak out against injustice, which carries with it the implicit hope that others might similarly stand up for what is right. Verge may disturb some with her mental state, but she is also capable of genuine insight and sensitivity, as well as great loyalty to the mother who has rejected her. While the workers are shafted on this occasion, it is their values rather than the values associated with offshore and multinational projects that stay in the mind after Den's final declaration on the factory floor.
Diving for Pearls is clearly a damning critique of fundamental aspects of contemporary society, but its gritty humor and occasional life-affirming moments also lend weight to a more hopeful interpretation.