Fallen Play | Sport For Jove

Director's Notes

In 2012 Seanna van Helten came to me with a fact: in the mid-nineteenth century Charles Dickens ran a home for fallen women. This was interesting, but she didn't stop there. What intrigued her about it was that the women were taught – instructed -  to never speak of their pasts; the main foundation of the training was to suppress their previous ‘wretched’ lives in order to begin afresh. Then, once the women had been ‘reformed’, they were not able to go back into the streets or society of London, but were to board a ship and set sail for the distant British colonies to become domestic servants with the hope of one day marrying a settler. To live out the rest of their lives in the highest office afforded to a woman: as a wife.  A clean slate on the other side of the world.

More than a house run by a famous man (insert eyeroll emoji here) we were both obsessed with the women who were chosen to be part of his experiment. Who were they? What had they done to be branded as ‘fallen’. Where did they end up? How did they feel about the institution? Could we trace them back?

Compared to the volumes of books and information on the famous and prolific Dickens, the women who participated in his experiment were unknown, untraceable, as if once outside the grasp of the house’s documentation, they vanished, disappeared off the face of the earth in their tumble down to the other side. These women changed their surnames upon marriage, these women weren’t able to hold office or pen their stories, these women’s lives were ultimately documented, and therefore remembered as gospel, by the notebooks of one man.

As women, we know too well that what is said about us is very different to how we might actually feel or what the reality of our situation really is. We’re used to being spoken about, sidelined and have rules and laws about our bodies and lives dictated and decided by men. We wanted to give these women a chance at a more complex, a more full, a more challenging representation. The quiet revolution for us had begun.

We never wanted Fallen to be about Charles Dickens. That much was clear.  We also knew that we could not make it completely naturalistic as it is not a factual retelling of this history. It can’t be, as history has never allowed these women to write their own history down. We wanted, instead, to see it as an imagining of what the lives, stories, desires and relationships were like for those forgotten women who spent time in this experimental institution.  

When it came to finally imagining the production of Fallen (after all these years) we were delighted to pair with Sport for Jove Theatre, and with no fakeness at all (promise!) this has been a truly inspiring, respectful and fruitful collaboration. Thank you to Damien and Steve for going above and beyond for this production and for making our time in Sydney such a memorable and productive one. Our She Said Theatre collaborators were all enlisted to create the work and I thank Raya, Chloe, Anna, Owen, and Michael for spending time away from their homes and loved ones to realise this ambitious indie theatre production. The She Said team form a tight ensemble, and our discussions, debriefs and shared dramaturgy of the work guides me through every step of the rehearsal process. Quite simply, I can’t do it without them and I am so grateful to work alongside such talented and passionate artists. Thanks to Sydney based lighting designer Sian, Stage Manager Lillian and Assistant Stage Manager Kimberley for rounding up the team in our first time collaborating together and making our rehearsal room so warm and safe and the transition into the Seymour Centre so smooth and assured.

Aiming for our audience to be as diverse as the bus that takes us to rehearsal every day is a She Said priority. If we want Australians to understand how this historical play has relevance to the society we are living in today then we need to make sure that all Australians, and all people living here, feel represented and reflected on the stage. That doesn’t just stop with casting diversely, it means listening to all the voices in the room, taking on their feedback and striving to create a safe space for everyone in the room to interrogate the rules and structure we operating in so that the production we create is a sum of us – across classes, cultures, ages, experiences, sexualities, politics and abilities. I thank Moreblessing, Abbie, Megan, Ellie, Chantelle, Bec and Lucy for coming on this journey with us and, after all these years, giving these women a voice and body on stage. I thank them for bringing who they are to this play, for creating characters who are then and now - 1848 London and 2017 Sydney – which I hope demonstrates how difficult and destabilising it still is for us to break out of the rules, structure, history and grasp of the patriarchy. Fallen was written as an ensemble piece to show the strength and power that is created when women believe in women and form a community, a safe sisterhood. This cast have proved to me how great things happen when women support each other instead of buying into the bullshit that we should be competitors, or that there’s not enough room or roles for all of us. There is, this play is proof of that.

And lastly, I thank the creative love of my life, Seanna, for always imagining a different way to do things. Without you, I would not have recognised the bell jar I was living in. Without you, none of us would be going on this journey. Thank you for teaching me the importance of critical analysis, of articulation, of imaginative storytelling, of rigorous debate and respect for the other’s perspective, and most importantly, of friendship.

The great Cherokee First Nations activist and writer, Reyna Greene says: “feminism is memory”. Fallen is a process of remembering, of imagining, of dreaming, of activating, of giving voice and agency to women who were never written down in the great pages of history. We don’t know who these women were, we can only imagine. But from the bottom of my heart, I say to these women: we remember you. We love you. Your struggle is still our struggle, but it was not, and is not, in vain.

- Penny Harpham, Director



This play began in response to a history – the history of a place called Urania Cottage, an obscure history in the great wash of capital-H History of Victorian England, of Charles Dickens, and of settler Australia. That it had remained obscure even as it was tossed and tugged through the tides of all this History had to do with its protagonists: young, underclass women, many of them sex-workers. Urania Cottage was a refuge, a reform home where bad girls might learn how to be good. It was founded by Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts, the richest woman in England, but Dickens himself pulled the strings, overseeing a gentler, domestic, more ‘feminine’ type of reform than that offered by the workhouses, prisons, asylums, and other reformatories. By the time the home’s inhabitants found themselves there, they had been vilified, pitied, or rejected by their society, and told their only hope at reform, at redemption, was to leave their former lives behind and agree to emigrate to British colonies and become the wives and companions of settler men. This was an experiment designed to solve several social problems at once: How to solve the ‘great social evil’ of prostitution? How to convince women who had ‘fallen’ that they could become respectable, eligible brides? How to enlist women to the empire’s cause, to redress the gender imbalance in settler colonies? The answer was the same: Australia.

Australia is a place that hasn’t reckoned with its colonial story, and so this play, in its own small way, is a reckoning. This history involves bloodshed, dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and whatever else stood in the way of imperial prosperity. This history involves the women who travelled across the world to join their families, or who sailed out to start one, remaking the empire one recipe, one utensil, one folk song at a time. This history involves Charles Dickens and the reform project he oversaw for over a decade. And so the obscure history of this small home for fallen women is no mere flotsam. The stories these women were told in order to buy into a fresh start in terra nullius, the lies they were told about Australia and about themselves, is part of our story now. Although this play is set in a little house down a quiet coun­try lane outside London, the story it tells is already afloat. The ship these women wait for has sailed, carrying them towards a faraway shore.

There is another reckoning at work here, and that is with the history of the Urania women themselves. This play is an act of imagination, but it is also my attempt to give voice, give agen­cy to the women in this story, so they are no longer obscure, no longer a footnote in the bi­ography of one of English Lit­erature’s key figures. Dickens’s intervention in these women’s lives, for good or bad, is a kind of narrative-making. As the author here, I relate. In the few snip­pets Dickens recorded of the real Urania women’s voices, I heard defiance, and fury, contempla­tion and longing, sensuality, and warmth and so much more than these women were likely given credit for. And yet, how to resist the urge to control the outcome, as Dickens must have felt? How to reconcile the actions of a house full of willful women who don’t seem to want the things you want for them – that you think they should want? Women who talk back, who struggle, who say one thing and do another, who resist interpretation, whose lives will not be pinned down like butterflies on the page. How else, but in theatre.

And so, a play. A play about a house. Fill it with the real bodies of women. The house is at sea – not literally, but imagine – sailing to the other side of the world. The house is being pulled by the tides, great tides of History. The house is at the edge, now it’s falling, falling down the side of the world… What is waiting for them? Are they ready? Are they ready?

I first heard about Urania Cot­tage via a radio interview with Jenny Hartley, author of Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, and wish to acknowl­edge the insight and comprehen­siveness of that text for capturing my imagination and for prompt­ing my own research. I also wish to acknowledge the following people who have been instru­mental in the script’s develop­ment: Raimondo Cortese at VCA, as well as Richard Murphet, my classmates, and other teachers; Tim Roseman and PWA; and the WITS team from Festival Fatale. I also want to thank the many wonderful actors who have read or workshopped versions of this work over the years, with a spe­cial mention to Lizzie Schebesta, who became the project’s guard­ian angel last year guiding us from PWA to WITS to our home at Sport for Jove. Damien and Steve, thank you for being the perfect collaborators and hosts – we are so happy and honoured to be working with you. To the She Said creatives and production team, thank you for giving this project your time, your creativity, your trust, your all. To Bec, Lucy, Chantelle, Moreblessing, Abbie, Ellie, and Megan – how lucky we are to have found you, thank you for fighting for these characters, and making them your own.

Finally, to Penny, who has stood beside me on this project from day one: we struck a match, we made a plan, we opened the door. Thank you for doing this with me. It is easier to start the world over with two.

- Seanna van Helten, Writer




How to approach the world of sound in Fallen? London in 1848 was a cacophony of sounds – street criers, the mechanical noise of industry, the bustling of horses carriages and footsteps, described by Dickens in The Old Curiosity Shop as: “That constant pacing to and fro, that never-ending restlessness, that incessant tread of feet wearing the rough stones smooth and glossy – is it not a wonder how the dwellers in narrows ways can bear to hear it!”

The phonograph wasn’t invented until 1877 – so the enjoyment of music was an active pastime. Class structure most certainly played a part in the introduction of music into these women’s lives – parlour room songs and bawdy ballads would have been recognisable and enjoyed by Julia, Martha, Isabella and Georgie. Kathleen Mavourneen was a popular parlour room song of the era – The Irish soprano Catherine Hayes sang it for Queen Victoria and over five hundred royal guests during a performance at Buckingham Palace in June 1849. “Mavourneen” is a term of endearment derived from the Irish Gaelic mo mhuirnín, meaning “my beloved” or “my darling” and we have used the latter in our adaptation of the song for Fallen. Rosina, who was educated and taught the piano, no doubt had a love of classical music and composers. With that in mind, and not wanting to lock the play into a naturalistic world of sound, we were inspired by female composers of the era Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Clara Schumann. Their compositional work was sadly underestimated due to their sex and often released under the name of a male relative – in the case of Fanny’s work it was her brother Felix Mendelssohn and Clara’s her husband - the famous romantic composer Robert Schumann. With the help of pianist Jessica Wells, I have brought the beautiful and complex music of these female composers into the modern day, in a way that I hope inspires the idea of the “everywoman” and invokes a contemporary understanding of the text.

- Raya Slavin, Composer/Sound Designer

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Reviews

"The ensemble is mesmerising; each actor – playing a character written and directed by a woman – creates a clear, three-dimensional and likeable character, no matter how ‘nice’ or ‘good’ she appears to be. No two ‘fallen women’ are the same and no woman is reduced to stereotype. They are women who tried to make their own lives."
"Van Helten’s writing is subtle, a quiet mystery with depths of emotion and meaning, discoverable under surfaces of restrained tumult."
"FALLEN is an interesting work and is important in exposing lesser known history."
"Directed by Harpham, the lyrical play has been given an aptly non-naturalist production, which is beautifully staged and performed."
"This was fascinating, thought provoking theatre."

Cast & Crew

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