Sue Smith is one of Australia’s finest television writers. In a career spanning thirty years she has written shows such as The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters, The Leaving of Liverpool, Brides of Christ, My Brother Jack and R.A.N Remote Area Nurse. She has won two AWGIE Awards, one for The Road from Coorain (1994) and another in 2012 for Mabo, which also earned a Queensland Literary Award. Recently she co-wrote the screenplay for Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.
What is In the Kingdom of 茶 about?
It is about imperialism and commodification; exile and dislocation; ambition and delusion. I was fascinated by the notion of karma extending beyond the personal to the national – the two countries that were most damaged by the West’s obsession with tea were China and India, both of whom, back then, were vulnerable to Western domination. Now of course they will soon rule the world. How will karma play out then, I wonder? But most of all, the play is about people trying – but failing – to love one another, and ultimately, it is about the simplicity and serenity of sharing something as ordinary as a cup of tea
When did you start writing plays?
I started in about 2005, after many years of writing for television and film. [Sue Smith’s first stage play, Thrall, had a sell-out season at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Hotel in 2006.]
What inspires you to write? What inspired you to write this play?
Inspires me to write? I don’t have the skills to do anything else! The very first inspiration for this particular play was that I was sick of going to cafes and being offered any one of a million varieties of coffee, but being given a teabag plonked in boiling water whenever I asked for tea. I feel that tea has been mistreated and undervalued as coffee has become increasingly hip. And I believe, more importantly, perhaps, that many of the countless millions of us who genuinely love tea – no matter how much we love it – have still lost the ability to truly treasure it as it deserves. That was the start…
What can an audience expect from a semi-staged reading of this play?
The play is too big and complex for a semi-staged reading to be able to completely deliver all its bells and whistles. But an audience will see clearly the principal characters and their stories, triumphant and tragic. They will be able to laugh and cry and be amazed with those characters. They will be able to watch the personal stories unfold in parallel, reflected by the times in which they take place – 1840, 1953 and 2014. And I hope that they will be given a glimpse of the heightened and magical world in which the play is set.
The history of tea is an epic subject – how did you narrow your focus to make it work as a play?
It is an epic subject, and when we look at its history, we see so many contemporary dilemmas and power struggles being played out – cultural power and domination; exploitation of labour; the glorification of free trade no matter what damage is done in its wake. I narrowed the focus, finally, by dreaming of the principal characters: Meera, Charles, Sinensis, Edmond and Rani. Once I had a sense of them, and the times in which they lived, I could begin to shape personal stories from the vast mass of research. And once I found the key elements in what I see as the betrayal of the purity of tea – the teabag, and the industrial machinery of production – I could incorporate these into the personal stories. None of this was burdensome – I loved reading the research, and I loved even more travelling to the tea gardens in Darjeeling and Kerala in India, and the auction house in Kolkata! It was a particular privilege to be invited into the world of the Indian tea workers, and their lives – a privilege I would not have experienced any other way.
Sue Smith’s In the Kingdom of 茶 is one of five plays included in Cybec Electric. The play will be presented at Southbank Theatre on 14 and 15 February, under the direction of Petra Kalive (Beached, 2013).