Thursday 13 July 2023

AWAY: Theatre Review

WHAT: Away
WHEN: 8 - 22 July 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Acland St)
WRITTEN BY: Michael Gow
DIRECTED BY: Stephen Mitchell Wright
DESIGNED BY: Greg Carroll
PERFORMED BY: Iopu Auva'a, Rupert Bevan, Linda Cookson, Stefanie Falasca, Bailey Griffiths, Justin Hosking, Eleanor Howlett, Cait Spiker, Stephen Tall, and students from Collarts
STAGE MANAGED BY: Brigette Jennings

Stefanie Falasca and Rupert Bevan - photo by Danial Rabin

There are probably only a handful of what we might call true Australian modern classic stage plays - mainly because we don't revisit them in repertory seasons. Amongst that venerable cohort sits Michael Gow's Away which is being presented this month at Theatre Works (Acland St). This play is pretty much a permanent fixture on the education curriculum so this is a great opportunity for students this year to see what happens to a play between page and stage and explore that dynamic journey.

Away, written in 1986 but set in 1968, takes place in an era of international tumult (the Vietnam War) and comes after longer periods of social tumult including struggling out of the World War years and all of the economic difficulties and insecurities which resulted. Whilst the over-riding link between the characters is losing sons in various ways, the underlying link is the economic strata which had developed as Australia entered its Golden Age of recovery with the emergence of our secondary industries. A constantly repeated refrain in the play is 'We're living in a country with one of the highest standards of living on earth...' and 'There is a price that has to be paid, of course. And we should all be prepared to pay it.' The inference being the price is our sons. What makes this play's context interesting is it was penned in the decline of that secondary industries boom which allowed Gow to pose the question was the cost too high?

Stephen Mitchell Wright's production probably doesn't really focus on this level of social commentary. Instead he has concentrated on the theatrical lineage of the work. Gow bookends the play with that grand old man William Shakespeare. The play starts with the ending of a high school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and ends with the first read through of King Lear at the same high school. The middle structure of the play mirrors the elemental reckoning of The Tempest. The play is also written in The Bard's 5 act play structure. This adds another interesting layer to Gow's choices because during the Golden Age interest in Shakespeare and veneration of patriotism were at all time lows which begs the question was Gow honouring The Bard or linking him to lies and failures of that era?

Of course we are now in 2023. We lie in the wake of that not very venerable Tony Abbott and his following cohort. Patriotism is at an all time high as is the love of Shakespeare (we can blame that on the old man's 400th anniversary). As such the reading of this production, with it's heavily layered Shakespearean aesthetic - particularly in the first half of the show, becomes a tad confusing and perhaps problematic. In contrast, the second half is intensely powerful as it eschews most of the ruffles and brocade and the characters are able to look at the post-Tempest wreckage and mourn their lives and losses.

Greg Carroll (designer) has worked hard to establish a very traditional Dream set, with ash-washed trees lining the wings, and a faux white cyc. There is even a mobile Juliet balcony which allows Wright to play with vertical space which I really appreciated. They even have one of the best moons I have seen staring down on the shenanigans. The creative team has taken the surrealism of the Dream and made it the over-riding aesthetic mixing costuming and props from all eras. You haven't seen anything until you have seen a Hawaiian shirt next to an Elizabethan ruffle!

On paper this concept works, but I personally felt it would have been better for the audience if they costuming stayed with the cast of the opening play. By having non-Dream cast in full Elizabethan made it confusing at the beginning to understand family relationships and social strata. In particular, I felt it messed with my reading of Harry (Iopu Auva'a) and Vicky (Stefanie Falasca). Those two characters are supposed to be exhausted, poor factory workers, the immigrants bringing the Golden Age to its luminescence on the back of their labour and poverty. Instead they look sprite and lively and lack the foil needed to play as relief to Gwen (Eleanor Howlett) and Jim (Justin Hosking) who are Great Depression survivors who now live a comfortable life in a white collar middle class Australia, holding on to their privilege with iron fists. 

I will say, however, the use of the Collarts students as supernumeraries was powerful perfection with their pantaloons and spears, watching, waiting, looming... Oh, and big props to Gow for not letting Meg (Cait Spiker) take the easy, expected route! That is, perhaps, his one overt nod to a more modern feminist aesthetic and I loved it even as I sat on the edge of my seat expecting her to give in to Tom's pleas for sex, and it sets up Coral beautifully for her final moment with Roy.

Roy (Stephen Tall) and Coral (Linda Cookson) are an intriguing and odd couple. Having lost their son in the Vietnam war Coral becomes obsessed with Kim Novak and seems to be living out the story line of The Mirror Crack'd to cope with grief. I would have loved for Wright to have pushed the bread trail Gow left inferring her potential as a sexual predator. It would have brought an intriguing question about trauma or reward to Tom's (Rupert Bevan) story line and truly heightened the real play within the play in the second act. It would possibly have also brought some humanity to Roy's threats and anger towards Coral. We forgive all with his glorious aria in the final act though. 

Overall, I think this is a really strong production of Away and the second act is everything you want in theatre - cathartic, painful, sweet, sad, and fulfilling. It wouldn't take much to really lift this production to complete excellence. My recommendation would be a wind machine which starts blowing slowly from New Year's Eve until the raging storm at the end of the first half. As the wind blows the layers of the past (costuming) could be swept away. I can't help thinking how powerful this would read for the Gwen storyline in the second half with all of those habits and rules which are her safety net having been blown away. This kind of subtextual detail is perhaps what I miss most in the first half of the play. 

The wind machine would also have the added benefit of blowing away all of that redundant haze and the smell of the herbal cigarettes... Ben Hughes' lighting is functional but lacked a bit of punch. It was probably hard to get definition with a set so ashen though. Rachel Lewindon's sound and composition was powerful and potent but I think the storm needed to grow, not just appear at the end of the first half. Winds of change and all that sort of thing... There is such a strong overlay of Shakespeare you can afford to bring in old theatrical technologies and it will work much better than more modern techniques like the haze.

As you can tell by what I have written, Wright's Away is an intriguing production and a wonderful example of the kinds of choices every production of every play has to make. The script is all potential, the production is all applied art. In this tension comes the magic and the conversations which follow. Context, meaning, emphasis... What better way is there to study VCE drama?

It has also been quite delightful to see Away, a very early Australian post-dramatic text, juxtaposed with When The Rain Stops Falling earlier in the Theatre Works 2023 season. Both plays share a lot in common in style and structure and level of interpersonal investigaton. You can easily follow the lineage from Gow 1986 to Andrew Bovell 2008 and to look at their plays reveals a lot about Australia in the intervening time frame.

4 Stars

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