Inspired by the intriguing story of Lindy Chamberlain and the 20 000 letters that she received after the murder of her daughter, the award winning playwright Alana Valentine (The Sugar House, Dead Man Brake, Parramatta Girls) has returned to this defining Australian story, however with a new perspective. Letters to Lindy takes an unprecedented look at the inspiring yet traumatic life of Lindy Chamberlain and is returning for a national tour after an acclaimed 2016 season.
As the play itself states: “Three things that have divided the nation: conscription, Whitlam and Lindy Chamberlain”.
After hearing about a massive archive of Lindy’s letters, Valentine began reading. “I spent three months looking through 60 per cent of the letters. I was struck by how Lindy had filed them, they were colour-coded. On the corner was a yellow post-it note summarising the letter, she’s very intelligent, she must have some sort of photographic memory,” said Valentine.
The letters became Lindy’s way of dealing with the grief of losing her baby and the trauma of spending so long in jail. Just as Lindy was categorising the letter she received, the provided a way to compartmentalising her grief. The letters came from people across the globe, writing about how she was wrongly jailed and how they had interpreted the situation. Some were even from dingo experts.
The general public expected Lindy to perform her grief in a certain way, and because she didn’t conform to that, in 1982 she was wrongfully convicted of murdering her daughter. By uncovering these letters and showcasing them, Valentine is demonstrating how Lindy’s grief manifested itself in a very private way. As Valentine noted, “she was incredibly emotional - just in a different way.”
Despite her story being covered extensively through the media for decades, the real story of Lindy Chamberlain has never been expressed. Valentine aims to rectify the two dimensional character that the media painted Lindy as, and instead represent her as the extraordinary woman that she is.
“My process is just to be as authentic and trustworthy as I can about the people I’m interviewing. People don’t want a filter, they want to get as close as they can to the real. I’m intrigued by authentic stories. I don’t really believe anyone else’s take on things, I want that face-to-face relationship,” said Valentine.
Letters to Lindy takes a subject-focused approach to Lindy’s story: Valentine interviewed Lindy extensively and had her input throughout the writing process. “It’s the first time we hear from Lindy what she felt about the experience, these are all her words in the play. It was one of the great privileges of my life,” said Valentine.
Lindy said herself that it was the closest anyone has come to representing her and that she felt for once that it was her voice. She also attended all of the opening nights of the first tour, and will be attending the majority of the opening nights of the national tour. “It’s quite something to be in the audience when Lindy takes the stage at the end,” said Valentine.
Reviewers have commented on how different this perspective of Lindy is, and who could blame them? Rather than perspectives which focus on the trauma or oddity of the events, this play seeks to represent into Lindy’s own perspective. “Lindy is really complex, I hope this play gives people greater insight into that,” said Valentine.
Letters to Lindy is less a question of if Lindy was guilty; but rather how can we as a nation deal with the shame and guilt of wrongfully sentencing her of murdering her daughter after a dingo stole her baby. “Theatre is about the things that we can’t read about. We know the facts of this story, but it’s those unknown aspects of human nature that theatre looks at,” said Valentine.
Valentine noted that people have had such varying perspectives on what the show is truly about: religion, the media, the criminal justice system; but Valentine suggested that this piece also poses questions about why Australia became obsessed with this story. Lindy’s version of the story never changed and neither did other witnesses, yet all the same, Australia was caught up in the presumed mystery of the trial.
Throughout the piece, Lindy’s letters come to life and we get a renewed perspective of her. It’s funny and very moving. The show’s touring performances features the original cast: Jeanette Cronin (TV’s Crownies and Rake) as Lindy Chamberlain, alongside Glenn Hazeldine, Phillip Hinton and Jane Phegan, and is directed by Darren Yap (Ladies Day, Miracle City).
“The cast have the same reaction to the story and they’re excited to be telling an Australian story. This happened here and it’s important we examine our history,” said Valentine.
For audiences who can remember when Lindy was sentenced, their personal histories intersect with the national story surrounding Lindy’s trial. It is one that all Australians are somehow connected to, which is part of what makes it such a moving experience.
For Valentine, this play allows a communal reconciliation with that wrongful conviction and provides a moment for audiences to collectively let go. As the play tours to Darwin where Lindy was convicted, Valentine looks forward to the story returning home, somewhat. “I think because we had a collective response it’s important to go to the theatre and witness it together, and then let go of the shame and the guilt,” said Valentine.
Letters to Lindy will be showing at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta July 12 to 14 as part of its national tour. You can grab tickets here: https://riversideparramatta.com.au