HYDRA | Queensland Theatre
09 March - 06 AprilBille Brown Theatre, Queensland TheatreBuy tickets Season tickets

In a nutshell

The true love story of Charmian Clift, George Johnston and My Brother Jack

They were writers, dreamers and free spirits. In the 1950s, Australian authors Charmian Clift and George Johnston fled halfway across the world to the idyllic Greek island of Hydra, determined to carve out a bohemian living as artists.

As they revel in their picturesque community, far off the world’s literary map, inspiration for the great Australian work strikes. But a manyheaded monster of jealousy, infidelity, illness and alcoholism also rises from the crystal blue waters of their sun-kissed island home.

Award-winning Sue Smith weaves the original writings of two of Australia’s literary icons into a moving relationship drama. She conjures the passion and intensity of the near mythical ‘King and Queen of Hydra’ as they follow their dream, only to end up in a Greek tragedy of their own making.


Hydra: overview

by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell

Authors of 'Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964' 

The Greek island of Hydra—rocky and remote—is an unlikely place to loom large in the story of Australian post-war cultural expatriation. After all, as the 1940s and ‘50s rolled by in conservative Australia, a generation of writers and artists seeking a more stimulating intellectual environment headed for London rather than the Aegean. Novelists George Johnston and Charmian Clift found themselves on that exodus when, with their two young children, Martin and Shane, they left Sydney for the centre of the Anglophone literary world in 1951. By late 1954, dissatisfied with the metropolitan life they had desired and looking for a place in the sun to write, the family was again on the move. It was a journey that led them to Greece; firstly, to the island of Kalymnos, and then to poorly serviced and underdeveloped Hydra. It was here that in quick succession a third child was born, a house purchased, and a commitment made, and so began a near-decade of living and writing amidst an unfamiliar language and culture.

Clift and Johnston’s decision to live on Hydra invited both admiration and derision. Some saw it as a bold and romantic rejection of modernity in favour of freedom, beauty and creativity. As Clift herself wrote, in surrendering well-paid jobs and modern luxuries they chose “to declare for individuality, for risks instead of safety, for living instead of existing, for faith in one’s ability to build a good rich life from the raw materials of the man, the woman, the children, and the talents we could muster.” Others saw it as an impetuous and even dangerous choice, neglectful of their children’s education and health, and counter-productive in terms of their own ambitions as they left behind the publishers, editors, critics and readers thought necessary for a literary career.

As it turned out, Clift and Johnston weren’t destined to years of isolation. They were among the first in a stream of like-minded individuals who made their way to Hydra, some by accident, others by intention. And what eventuated–an international ‘colony’ of aspiring artists and writers–was a notable episode in mid-century bohemianism, which reached its zenith in the early ‘60s at a tipping point between the Beats and The Beatles. Leonard Cohen would become the most famous of those who settled on Hydra, where the roll-call of expatriates went beyond the emerging artists Clift and Johnston encouraged and befriended (including Australians Sidney Nolan, Rodney Hall, Mungo MacCallum and Robert Owen), and eventually spanned a long list of Europe’s political and entertainment elites. Again to quote Clift, “we had unwittingly started a sort of cult, since other foreigners fol­lowed our example and bought houses, too, and our quiet, cheap, remote little island became very fashionable and not really cheap or even quiet any more.”


As Hydra changed around them, Clift and Johnston’s marriage became enmeshed in an existential crisis fuelled by alcohol, sexual jealousy, poverty, ill-health and their own competitive natures. Their Aegean dream was rapidly fading and their failure as writers was seemingly sealed. Yet, against the odds and from a distance of 15,000 kilometres, they collaboratively crafted a great Australian novel. It was the critical and commercial success of Johnston’s My Brother Jack, set in inter-war Melbourne, which allowed them to return to Australia in triumph. There remained, however, a price to be paid.


This story, as told by Sue Smith in Hydra, deftly and confrontingly traces both the personal and professional arc of Johnston and Clift’s expatriation. In doing so, it poses questions that everyone must answer, about the risks we are prepared to take; the cost of pursuing our dreams; and the depth of our commitments.

Join us for our HYDRA play briefing Monday 4 March 6pm. 
We’ll be giving away three copies of Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell's new book ‘Half the Perfect World’ that recounts the lives of George Johnston and Charmian Clift on Hydra.



    Queensland Theatre Premiere

    Cast Includes Ray Chong Nee, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Anna McGahan, Nathan O’Keefe, Hugh Parker, Bryan Probets

    Assistant Director Merlynn Tong

    Designer Vilma Mattila 

    Lighting Designer Nigel Levings 

    Composer/Sound Designer Quentin Grant 

    Directorial Observation ​Hannah Barr, Ngoc Phan

    This production contains coarse language, adult themes, sexual references and the use of e-cigarettes.

    Information for Schools

    Auslan Interpreted Mon 18 Mar, 6.30pm

    Play Briefing 
    Mon 4 Mar, 6pm 
    Bille Brown Theatre

    QT Club 
    Sat 16 Mar, 2pm

    Night with the Artists 
    Mon 18 Mar, 6.30pm

    Hydra has been supported by the Legal Chapter, through the Play Commissioning Fund

    • RACQ
    • State Theatre Company South Australia