A perfectly timed nudge from Artistic Director Robyn Nevin in what we did not know at the time were the final months of Premier Bob Carr’s reign, saw the necessary cheque arrive in the mail to bankroll the concept: a group of actors who could work together full-time, with different directors, to see if some better theatre might just possibly emerge. Surely it was time to get beyond the paltry five-week rehearsal and eight-week season - before tossing into the bin even productions that managed to rise above such inhibiting restraints.
But who among even the most idealistic could have hoped for such an extraordinary year? Mother Courage: a respectable start. Kosky’s The Lost Echo: absolutely mind-blowing and as good as anything imported here from overseas for our various capital city festivals. The company was exposed as somewhat exhausted in Jean-Pierre Mignon’s The Bourgeois Gentleman which followed: a good production in theory that just fell flat, the players spared little chance to catch their breathe after the monumental eight-hour ‘rites-of-passage’ Kosky had just put them through.
And now this: a play some of us have followed with close interest for years. In my case, reading it at university in 1975 and soon after experiencing Sharman’s (for it’s time) startlingly non-naturalistic production.
Sharman’s Sarsaparilla, designed by Wendy Dickson, did well to demonstrate what ‘could’ (as opposed to ‘could not’) be done with the all-new Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre’s ‘letter-box’ shaped stage. This design feat was taken a step beyond the long-winded superfluity of conventional (read British Rep) realism we had been raised on in the soon-to-follow Sharman/Brian Thomson production of Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul, where Nevin created her first Miss Docker, one of her most memorable characterisations.
What followed an era of exciting productions through the late 1970s and 1980s (director Rodney Fisher also contributing some outstanding work) was a decline in the radical impetus, if not technical finesse, of so-called mainstream theatre.
Too much ‘same-same’ until a decade ago when good theatre in Sydney began to emerge from mostly small companies driven, in some cases, by a new generation of screen actors with a bit of spare cash and a few months before their next film. The Old Fitzroy lead the way, but others followed and an exciting ‘alternate’ theatre scene emerged.
Now at last, the so-called ‘mainstream’ is once again stepping up to the plate. Belvoir is hot, hot, hot. And one gets the feeling the STC is also back on the way up.
The best of the old guard – who gathered their craft during of the previous high phase - are settling into suitably sage-like senior positions: witnessed best of all in this production in Peter Carroll’s superbly restrained and torturously hilarious Girlie Pogson (remembering that Robyn Nevin’s ‘Girlie’ in Jim Sharman’s 1976 production was equally definitive for its time).
And a new generation is now moving up: symbolized in the Upton-Blanchett double-act taking over the artistic directorship of the STC from next year.
The time is ripe for advancement and change. In the past decade, Armfield and Kosky in particular have lifted standards across the art form, along with the help of a whole bunch of fabulous actors and designers (sadly playwriting remains consistently wanting). And now we are looking to what might well emerge as the ‘Beno’ (i.e. ‘Benedict Andrews’ generation moving into full sway.
While the iconoclastic Kosky has carved out a career path as original as it is isolated, there has been, on the other hand, a passing of the baton almost literally from Sharman to Armfield to Andrews. The common thread has been the production of plays by Patrick White. The influence has been quite direct, with each emerging talent working either on (in the capacity of ‘assistant director’) or, in other instances, in close proximity to their mentor’s productions of texts by White. Adelaide city has largely served as the glass-house.
It’s almost got to the point that the hottest ‘next thing’ in Australian theatre (female or male) will have to declare at some point that they are ready to take on one of White’s eight plays. Just as every actor in Britain worth their salt must one day show us his Hamlet or her Ophelia.
So what has Andrews done do deserve such a rap? The Season at Sarsaparilla was never admired by the literary cognoscenti of the era from which it emerged. Even those who broke ranks in the 1950s and ‘60s and claimed to admire his novels found White’s first four published plays structurally clumsy and largely sour in mood. His second play, after A Ham Funeral, The Season was the first to be located in the environment White had settled into on his return to Australia – the scrappy, over-heated acre blocks of Castle Hill, since transmogrified into McMansionsland.
The action captures in detail the minutiae of these fringe-dwellers lives, played out over several days (and nights) at the height of summer with a bitch on heat somewhere out on the streets creating havoc among the local dogs. The dogs’ ‘animal instincts’ and the raucous, somewhat brutal results, lay a foundation for this study of humans who, in many ways, live too close to one another yet, at the same time (emotionally) too far apart. Like yet another pack of dogs, they too bark and yelp, nip at each others heals and sometimes tear into each other with astonishing viciousness.
Among those suffering the stifling heat is, in Nola Boyle, another ‘bitch on heat’. Sydney has been so gifted with Pamela Rabe’s relocation from Melbourne to join the STC’s Actors’ Company. And while there are many reasons to see this production, Rabe’s sensual, hard-bitten yet heartbreakingly vulnerable Nola is the first to merit citation. To those who know what this means, Pamela Rabe is our very own Eleonora Duse, perhaps to Robyn Nevin or Judy Davis' Sarah Bernhardt.
In this ‘charade on suburbia’, White creates three adjacent households – and that was how he intended it to look on stage. In a conventional staging, audience attention flicks from members of one house to the next and back: back and forth, back and forth - for minor moments, one-off lines and major scenes.
In a most inspired move, Andrews moves the three families into the one house (further impressing upon us the ‘interchangeability of their lives). The house rotates so we can see can examine action carried out in different rooms.
The design also draws on ‘Big Brother-like’ cameras set throughout the house so we can at times witness what is going on elsewhere. More importantly for the drama, this new technology allows the production to crash through what is usually an emotionally distancing veneer directly into the faces, and indeed souls, of specific characters at crucial times. Without fiddling with a word of text, Andrews’ production – set design by Robert Cousins – brings the emotional interior of the drama vividly to life.
I have one quibble here. The house is brick as requested. But white brick? White bricks did not appear in Sydney’s western suburbs’ housing until the 1970s. And if this is meant to be some nod to Howard Arkley’s celebrated paintings of the same - why not go all the way and spray the building all over fluoro outlines? Go the distance, as the production does in so many other ways. As it is, the structure of the set is brilliant, while its aesthetic feels inauthentic and feeble.
This is clearly a production by a young team, because again among Alice Babidge’s mostly excellent costumes are a couple of woopers. The female glamour references, when needed, are much closer to Hollywood 1950s than that of Castle Hill.
That said, another positive arising out of the ‘re-engineering’ of White’s original design concept is a diminishing of the on-stage status of Roy Child (Eden Falk), who plays, in part, a narrator: an alienated young man who wants to be a writer and get out of what he sees as the spiritually destructive and creatively inhibiting hell-hole called Sarsaparilla. Traditionally Roy is the voice for the playwright - from a time when just about anyone in Australia with creative urges felt the same way. The character’s predicament is not of so much interest to us today. Denied access to the cameras, Roy’s status is effectively reduced to that of just another character, a minor one, and the production is better for that.
The containment of Roy frees up the story-telling focus, which Andrews turns on Girlie Pogson and to some degree her two daughters. Girlie is the play’s oldest female character. She is a busybody upholding unrealistically out-of-date standards of decorum. “It’s a female dog!” Girlie insists… not a bitch. And she doesn’t need to peek through the Venetian to know what’s going on or at the Boyle’s.
Girlie, in this production, is played by none other than Peter Carroll. The creation is scintillating. Deliciously camp, yet only to the extent that the character’s actions in the play allow. Carroll’s ‘Girlie’ is a tour-de-force of technical discipline and hilarious self-restraint. Alongside Rabe’s magnificent Nola, Carroll’s Girlie is top-drawer stuff.
In this version, Mr Pogson is played by John Gaden. Another perfectionist at the top of his form, Gaden’s face remains buried in a newspaper for almost the entire play. Clearly worn down by his years with Girlie, his face lights up only the once – when he bumps into a rather attractive young female neighbour (lovely work from Actors’ Company guest, Helen Thomson) as he heads off one morning to work. His inner-candle, for a mere moment, catches alight. If doused as quickly by a panicky glance at his watch.
Meanwhile the action itself turns on simmering Nola Boyle, married to Ernie (Brandon Burke) the night soil man. In a stupor of alienated listlessness, Nola succumbs to the sexual taunts of ‘Digger’ Masson (Colin Moody), an old mate of Ernie’s who drops in to visit for a few days. Trouble is Ernie works at nights. Ernie comes home on the second morning to a make-do bed in the living room which has clearly not been slept in; and Nola, defiant in her shame, has refused to mess it up.
Just quickly, it has been forgotten that director Mary-Anne Gifford also created an excellent production of The Season at the New Theatre some years ago. But this is the first where White’s deep-seated dramaturgical skills are so convincingly exposed. For all the titters of laughter initially drawn from this ‘charade’, this is the first time we are taken by the Boyle’s, and their troubles, to the bottom of the ocean we might call ‘married life’.
White, never afraid to confront the cruel side of human nature, also yearned for redemption: and here, in this production, it’s what we get. Our Duse (Rabe) is superbly partnered by Brandon Burke as Ernie, in a journey that could well have ended in shipwreck. But instead of heading out to the pub as he plans, Ernie ends up in Nola’s arms. It’s as if, without forgiveness, we would all die.
In the closing scene, it is only appropriate that the young lovers take us away on the wings of a dawning romance: outstanding work again by Dan Spielman as clean-cut Ron and Hayley McElhinney as the coming-of-age Judy Pogson.
Sydney Theatre Company Presents
THE SEASON AT SARSAPARILLA
By Patrick White
Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Previews: 26 February – 1 March 2007 at 8pm
Opening Night: 2 March 2007
Dates: 3 March – 31 March 2007
Times: Mondays at 6:30pm, Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8pm
Matinees: Wednesday matinee at 1pm (except 14 March at 12:15pm), Saturday matinee at 2pm
Tickets: $73/ $60 concession Matinee $65/$54 concession
Bookings: 02 9250 1777
Photos - Tania Kelley
Cover - Emily Russell, Peter Carroll and Pamela Rabe
Top left - Pamela Rabe, Eden Falk and Hayley McElhinney. On screen - Martin Blum and Emily Russell
Center - Peter Carroll, John Gaden, Dan Spielman, and Hayley McElhinney