Miss Jean Batten is a new solo show, produced by Flaxworks theatre company, written by Phil Ormsby and performed by Alex Ellis about New Zealand’s legendary Aviatrix. Miss Jean Batten is a joyous celebration of an independent woman who pursued her ambition with unqualified success but most of all, it’s about capturing the spirit of Jean Batten, who made the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand, setting a record that stood for 44 years. Glory Days Creative Director, Rose Jackson, attended one of the first performances of the new solo show and interviewed Phil Ormsby about Miss Jean Batten and why it was important to keep her story alive.
Hi Phil, what is your background in theatre?
I loved it at school but never thought much about it again until I was well into my thirties. I got involved at my local repertory doing tech bits and pieces and gradually insinuating myself into productions. By the time I'd directed a few plays I knew what I really wanted was to write one and after I saw my first play staged I knew for sure that was all I wanted to do.
What path led you to the inimitable Jean Batten?
Alex and I tour our work whenever we can as much as we can and the last couple of years have seen us travelling overseas more often. We were waiting at Auckland's international terminal (actually the Jean Batten International Terminal) standing under Jean's plane which hangs from the roof and wondering if there was a play specifically about her. It's a solo play because she was very much a solo act and the fact that she traveled a lot all of her life was appealing to us. Its something we hope we can both continue to do.
Alex Ellis as Jean Batten
Why did you think it was important to tell her story now?
It's been 80 years since her historic flight and I think the passage of time makes it easy to overlook the enormity of what she did. She was one of our last great adventurers, I don't think anyone could compete with her except perhaps Hillary almost 20 years later and I think it's important and inspirational to refresh our memory of heroic individuals like Jean.
The circumstances in which she died were a real tragedy (Batten became reclusive and died from complications due to a dog bite, alone in a hotel room in Majorca in 1983), do you know much about how/ why she fell out of the public eye?
I don't know if she ever fell out as such. I think she had to perform for the press in order to do what she did. Flying is an expensive business and she had sponsors to keep happy and she had speaking tours to publicise. But once she succeeded in her ambition to fly solo to New Zealand and was financially comfortable I think she was more choosy about how much public exposure she would allow. Staying on the front page is a full time job so perhaps she felt she had done what she wanted to do and that was enough.
The quote from the Mayor that you used on the publicity was extremely shocking to modern eyes. The quote the Mayor made states "Jean, you are a very naughty girl and I think you deserve a good spanking for giving us all such a terribly anxious time here." Do you think that Jean's life and her story would have been told differently had she been a man?
Without a doubt. I was lucky to have access to a huge MOTAT collection of newspaper clippings from the period documenting her flights and without fail they all start and finish with what she is wearing. I doubt any reports on male pilots care so passionately about their fashion choices. We are constantly reminded that Jean is a woman (just in case we had failed to notice) or more often a girl, a young girl or an attractive young girl. The interesting thing about Jean is that she was smart enough to turn it to her advantage, her public image was always polite, always respectful, whereas privately she was clearly a tenacious and determined individual.
Our magazine likes to look at the past and our heritage to see what lessons we can pick out from history as a means of living a better life today - what can we learn from Batten's story?
She was a young woman of modest means from suburban Auckland who decided she was going to learn to fly and then single-handedly navigated a tiny plane across the world from England back to her home town. All this at a time when pilots regularly disappeared mid-flight. The general reaction to her ambition was that it was ludicrous but she stuck to her guns and learned not just flying but navigation, engineering and methodically set about achieving one of the monumental feats of the last century. The lesson is that limitations are something we can accept or defy, it's up to us.
We love strong subversive women as well, I bet you had a wealth of interesting content from Jean's life to choose from! What's the most interesting fact that you found out about Batten when you were researching for the play?
She had an undefeatable self-belief. Even in her most difficult moments, through plane crashes and mechanical failure and personal tragedy she was one of those people who got back up, dusted herself off and carried on.
What can audiences expect from your show? Will they laugh, cry or both?
Both I hope. The play is set during a high point in her career as a solo pilot. She's 26, she's in Sydney and as soon as the weather clears she will fly the last leg of her journey to Mangere. She is front page news all over the world so it's very exciting but she hasn't quite finished, so she can't relax or take her eye off the prize. We try to capture all that and mix it with her personal thoughts on what she's been through to get to this point in her life. Some of it's funny, some of it's poignant, (Alex is brilliant at constantly shifting the mood of the play) and hopefully audiences will come away inspired by Jean Batten.
REVIEW FOR MISS JEAN BATTEN...
I had the pleasure of seeing one of the opening performances of Miss Jean Batten and can attest to the fact that I did both!
Set in a very intimate space at the Basement Theatre, one certainly gets a sense of the world closing in on Batten as she mentally prepares herself for the final leg of her world breaking journey. Miss Jean Batten has the audience perched right beside the adventurer as she lists the challenges that stood in her way of flying from England to New Zealand, punctuated with knocks at the hotel door and endless telegrams from busy bodies instructing her to stop her mad pursuit of a flight record.
The small stage was set very simply in cream monochrome, with wood and metal flourishes but Jean Batten, played superbly by Alex Ellis, makes full use of the space, starting high on the timber A-frame in a sumptuous 30s style flared silk pants suit, courtesy of Elizabeth Whiting, that swishes and sways around beautifully throughout the play (my only objection being that invisible zips didn't exist in the 1930s!). Over the course of the evening Ellis gets herself into every nook and cranny of the set to differentiate between different scenes and moods so the space magically transforms from hotel room, to plane, to hangar, to dance floor.
This feeling of different spaces is assisted by some fantastic lighting from Ruby Reihana-Wilson and wonderfully evocative soundscape by Thomas Press. I particularly loved the archival sound recordings from when Batten landed in New Zealand and the scenes when Batten was recounting being lashed by storms on various legs of her journey - I gave me the sense of being right there in the plane with her.
Alex easily carries the play on her own with a bold and confident performance that had the audience laughing out loud, in tears and on their feet at the end. It can never be easy to carry a play by yourself, but Ellis certainly kept the story pacing along and engaging throughout the entire performance. I admire anyone who can remember that many words without anyone else's feedback or prompting, but she did more than just trot out the lines - I got a real sense of the exhilaration and exasperation that Batten must have gone through in facing up to inclement weather, towering sandstorms, mysoginist officials and more to follow her dream.
I knew very little about her life before seeing Miss Jean Batten, apart from reading a very small mention of her achievements in the Air New Zealand 75 years exhibition at the Auckland Museum, but it has inspired me to find out more about this brave, determined but hugely underrepresented adventurer from New Zealand's past. As a strong, subversive and brave female role model from history, I can't help but wonder if there would be more known about Batten if she has been born a man? Miss Jean Batten is certainly helping to redress that balance.
- Rose Jackson
Glory Days has a double pass to give away to Miss Jean Batten on Wednesday 6th April at 6.30pm. To enter, simply visit our facebook page and tag a strong, subversive friend that you would like to take along to the performance before Monday 4th April at 8pm!