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Letters to Lindy a fresh take on the Chamberlain story

IN HER WORDS: Jeanette Cronin as Lindy in the play Letters to Lindy.
IN HER WORDS: Jeanette Cronin as Lindy in the play Letters to Lindy.

ALMOST four decades after Azaria Chamberlain died on August 17, 1980, her mother's story is being told afresh at Toowoomba's Empire Theatre in the new touring production Letters to Lindy.

The play is the work of award-winning playwright Alana Valentine, best known for her portrayal of the real-life hardship and abuse of girls in state-run homes in the 1960s-70s in Parramatta Girls and Eyes to the Ground.

In it she provides an insight into the woman whose story we all thought we knew, her resilience and faith, and shows the media bias, the clips of Lindy's tears never broadcast, the effect on her other children and family, and the miscarriage of justice which surrounded arguably Australia's most famous court case, set off when Lindy Chamberlain reported a dingo had taken her baby.

In the ultimate compliment, at the premier, Lindy hailed the play as "the closest thing to her story that had ever been portrayed".

A 1989 graduate of NIDA, and with a Graduate Diploma in Museum Studies, Alana is no stranger to taking her research to the stage.

In this case her source was 199 boxes of meticulously filed correspondence which Lindy Chamberlain had donated to the National Library in Canberra, as well as several interviews with Lindy.

"It was very intimidating," Alana admitted, of the size of the project.

LOSS OF INNOCENCE: Lindy Chamberlain was a 32-year-old mother of three when her world was turned upside down by the loss of her daughter Azaria.
LOSS OF INNOCENCE: Lindy Chamberlain was a 32-year-old mother of three when her world was turned upside down by the loss of her daughter Azaria.

Having gained a grant and Lindy's permission, she spent three months examining up to half the collection of some 30,000 letters from the public, each of which Lindy had coded and marked with a post-it note summarising the contents, and a one to seven star ranking as to how remarkable they were in some way to her - seven being either the most beautiful or most horrific.

Surprisingly, for the woman so vilified in the media, only a small percentage of the letters were "ugly", with 95 per cent being what Alana described as a "remarkable outpouring of support and love" from strangers.

And the letters, the majority of which Lindy received during the years she was in jail from 1982 to '86, came from wide-ranging sources - poets, visual artists, children, professionals, workers and housewives, other prisoners, parents offering sympathy and telling stories of their own children or losses, those offering prayers, maverick journalists, and "apologisers".

To this day, Alana said, Lindy still receives up to 1000 emails a year from people, many of them offering apologies for her mistreatment.

There were also numerous letters from local Aborigines and others talking about their experiences with dingoes in the area, in stark contrast to media and investigation teams suggesting the incident was without precedent.

But there were also the religious fanatics, one of whose letters is used in the play, who believed the events had occurred to draw attention to Uluru (then Ayers Rock), as it would be the site of the Second Coming.

The letters, voiced by three actors performing as a sort of chorus, wind in and out of the central monologue which captures Lindy's words of her experiences more or less verbatim.

"I felt Lindy had been written about a lot, but had rarely been given her own voice," Alana said, explaining why she had kept the words as close as possible to Lindy's.

The play, which ends with a lullaby, Alana said often received standing ovations, which she felt were as much for Lindy and her resilience as for the play itself and its actors, including Jeanette Cronin as Lindy.

"I think people are amazed by the story, but also relieved by the ability to let it go," Alana said, referring to the way the community had been caught up in the drama at the time as a collective experience with almost a lynch-mob mentality.

She said the play had received the largest media response of any play she had written.

"I think the reason people continue to be so fascinated by the story is because it was one of the worst miscarriages of justice in Australian history, but also because Lindy is this beacon of resilience and forgiveness through it all."

Letters to Lindy is at Empire Theatre on August 7 (1300 655 299) and Brisbane's Powerhouse from August 1-4 (3358 8600).

Topics:  empire theatre production entertainment letters to lindy theatre toowoobma


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