Image for An Inconvenient Woman: a review of the play finishing in Hobart this Saturday

*Pic: Flashback to a ‘Shine the Light for Sue – Candlelight Vigil’, sponsored by Sue Neill-Fraser Support Group on Parliament House Lawns, in June

An Inconvenient Woman is the apt title for a new play from the Tasmanian Theatre Company. It’s based on the controversial case of Susan Neill-Fraser, now in her sixties, who has been in Risdon prison for over eight years after being convicted of killing her long-term partner Bob Chappell. 

Like many other Hobart residents I’ve been following the case quite closely since Bob Chappell disappeared from their yacht, which was found sinking in the Derwent off Sandy Bay in January 2009. 

The opening night on Tuesday 24th October was sold out and obviously well received.  In the audience was the interstate lawyer who commissioned the play, written by Brian Peddie.  The centrepiece is a glimpse of the murder trial itself, using words true to the court transcript. The drama of the trial was reproduced perfectly, according to some members of the audience who actually sat through the trial itself.  The approach of the Chief Prosecutor in questioning the accused seemed rather aggressive, but perhaps that’s a realistic depiction as the defence counsel objected to the hectoring of his client, who was obviously struggling to express herself while being interrupted. 

Based on circumstantial evidence of great complexity the case itself had far too many twists, turns and “grey” areas to include in the play. To give such a telling vignette within a seventy minute performance was a remarkable feat, considering the trial itself lasted about three weeks.

The play began and ended with the extraordinary phone call that Susan received late at night on 26th January from a complete stranger. He told her that Bob’s adult daughter Claire was insisting that something terrible was about to happen to her father and that it involved the yacht.  She didn’t want him to go aboard.  Only hours later the yacht was seen sinking in the Derwent and her father was missing.  The prediction had become a terrible reality.

Rightly that phone call was depicted as pivotal in the ensuing investigation and trial.  Susan’s omission in not immediately telling the police that the disturbing call had prompted her to go to Sandy Bay to check on the yacht resulted in her being labelled a liar. Her later explanation that she wanted to maintain the Chappell family’s privacy about Claire’s mental instability did not expunge that label, which was then applied whenever the police couldn’t confirm Susan’s memory of events with concrete evidence.

With the haunting words of that crucial phone call at the end, echoing the opening scene, the circularity of the play becomes evident.  Have we been shown a very condensed version of actual events, made so realistic using sections from the trial transcript verbatim? Or perhaps we’ve been trapped in the mind-loop of someone continually reviewing the details of events, words, emotions and memory forming such a potent mix that a woman, persistently protesting her innocence, had found herself incarcerated for decades. 

The outburst near the end gives an insight into the self-blame of someone who has to live with the consequences of mistakes, whether big or small, made by herself and others. 

Even more difficult is the realisation of how much those mistakes have hurt loved ones - but was there a point when the end result became almost inevitable, even fated? The yearning to turn back time becomes obvious, spooling recollections on wind and rewind hoping for a different ending, or at least some insight. 

For a play that lasted just over an hour it covered a lot of ground by using short and often dynamic exchanges between the characters, who were necessarily sketched rather than portrayed in depth by the five professional Hobart-based actors.  Anne Cordiner portrayed Sue Neill-Fraser with remarkable accuracy, given that she was refused permission to visit Susan in prison to prepare for the role.  For most of the play she sat in a wheelchair but towards the end she stood up.  This again gave the impression of a “rewind” as Susan was actually walking normally when she went to prison but subsequently developed severe foot problems which now necessitate the use of a wheelchair.

The four male actors were Joe Clements, Colin Dean, Craig Irons and Jeff Michel, who all played multiple roles including police, lawyers, jury foreman and witnesses.  There was initial surprise at seeing a bearded man playing Susan’s daughter Sarah, who is probably well-known for media interviews in support of her mother.  The unexpected gender-mix emphasised the emotional roller-coaster and confusion suffered by the whole extended family ever since Bob Chappell disappeared. 

No doubt all these talented actors must have felt a considerable responsibility in portraying people who have been in the public eye.  Some of those people will still be involved in the real-life drama as it continues from Monday 30th October with Susan Neill-Fraser’s submission for leave to appeal her conviction under new legislation.

The play’s closing scenarios remained as poignant images long after the applause ended.  The final view of Susan in the distance flanked by four sinister-looking silhouetted men with distinctive hats harked back to the court scene where a lone woman seemed overwhelmed and was certainly outnumbered by men.  Perhaps it was also an iteration of much older scenarios where women have felt themselves to be at the mercy of men, even when legal processes were ostensibly in place. 

Non-lawyers in the audience may have been perplexed by some of the legal concepts depicted via the trial transcript .  They might have found it as difficult as the jury apparently did to grasp the real distinction between various definitions of murder and manslaughter.  It was also quite puzzling to discover from the judge’s sentencing comments that people who have consistently pleaded “not guilty” to murder can nonetheless be told that a sentence may be more severe due to “aggravating factors” such as the accused not showing remorse for the crime and not helping the police by, for example, divulging where the body is. 

Whatever the intention of the playwright, there is plenty of scope for audience members to interpret parts of the play and its overall rationale as they will.  There is no attempt to persuade the audience one way or the other about the guilty verdict.  As a result of thorough research and use of the trial transcript and other information in the public domain the play presents us with enough of this strange and disturbing story to prompt thought about the way our legal system works in conjunction with police investigations and also the role of media reporting in criminal cases.  It also gives a glimpse of the lasting consequences of a guilty verdict on everyone involved, especially the person who has to live with those consequences every minute of every day.  A haunting question for the audience is whether circumstantial evidence might sometimes lead to the conviction of an innocent person and if so, whether they or someone in their family could ever find themselves caught up in such a situation.

Being staged in a very spacious old shed must have presented many challenges for the design team, but creative decisions resulted in an appropriate impression of confusion, tension and disbelief.  Voices occasionally seemed disembodied as in a radio play, and the bold lighting suggested changes in scene, mood and tempo while adding a dramatic effect.

For those interested in this unique legal case still playing out on our doorstep, or for those keen to see an innovative local production, An Inconvenient Woman is definitely worth catching.  Bookings can be made via Centertainment for nightly shows at 6.15 Tuesday October 31st and at 8.15 Wednesday 1st to Saturday 4th November.  The pop-up theatre at 41 Evans Street has a wine bar but rather basic seating, so you might like to dress warmly and take a cushion for extra comfort.

Download Ryk Goddard’s review of An Inconvenient Woman ...

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*Sam Stark lives in Hobart and is actively involved in many interests, including justice issues and local theatre.

Sam is known to the Editor

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ABC: Susan Neill-Fraser: The killing of Bob Chappell and the ‘Justice For Sue’ campaign to free convicted murderer

ABC: Sue Neill-Fraser: DNA could have been transferred onto boat, expert concedes