It is important to acknowledge an extraordinarily sustained performance by Max Cullen in the title role. It stands as one of a rare offerings of magically inspired one man interpretations. Cullen is something of a rarity in Australian theatre, a consummate performer who has stood by his craft without compromise. Whether in ‘Buried Child’ or ‘Waiting for Godot’ (Belvoir) or ‘One Day in the Year’ (STC) or any one of the numerous roles he has made his own all have his distinctive personal mark on them and Lawson is no exception. Cullen has an unfailing sense of time and place and a genuine delight in his character that allows him to move effortlessly between generosity and spitefulness, acceptance and impatience without ever losing sight of the humanity of ‘Harry’ the man.
But while this is a masterly performance regrettably it is not enough to qualify the production for great theatre. True there are moments that reach a sublime point but a theatrical experience has to sustain an audience through a journey and this it failed to do. The flaw lay partly in the work itself, partly in the staging and then, quite seriously in the design.
In terms of the work itself, a staged solitary reverie with musical interludes, the text, written by Brian Matthews, delivered by Cullen with whimsy and bitterness, was beautifully constructed. It showed an acute sense of the pain behind the poet and a sense of the desperation contained in the measure of his verse. The problem was that Cullen’s gifted interpretation of Lawson’s verse was invariably juxtaposed against a musical rendition of it, composed by John Schumann, that bordered on the banal. Some years ago Grabbit and Runn of which Schumann is a member produced a very commendable representation of Patersons’ verses set to music. ‘The Man From Snowy River’ was an outstanding example, building momentum till ‘their sides were white with foam and tired and broken he turned their heads for home’. The insistent rhythm there present wasn’t evident here, nor, unfortunately was there anything much to take its place. Lawson is not Paterson and would have been deserving of a very different drum. All that was offered, however, was a series of rather repetitive folksy ballads the likes of which Lawson has only rarely been guilty. Lawson is the voice of an urgent prophet, a Dylan of his day. He was no writer of lyric ballads. In the staging, the director, Errol Bannister, had the performance open with a monologue that had all the hallmarks of a ‘prologue’; Lawson’s quiet reverie from downstage, left leaving the whole remainder of the stage in pregnant darkness. Sadly what was promised never materialised.
When the lights finally opened up the stage it revealed a bright little band of instruments and songsters made up of John Schumann & The Vagabond Crew that resolutely reduced the heartache to rollicking rhythms. It is not impossible for a performer to carry a show in spite of a less than sympathetic musical backing but it is going to be uphill when the backing is both upstaging the drama and seriously detracting from its mood.
The design, by Wendy Todd, comprised two blocks of ‘frames’ as a backdrop with the band set squarely in front of a wide black void that separated them. The combined effect, intentional or otherwise, compounded the staging problems by constantly drawing attention to the black void behind the metallic shimmer of instruments. At the end of each interlude the whole set was again plunged back into the light pools of drab ordinariness of ‘Harry’s’ reverie. The constant crossovers became disconcerting and tiresome.
Cullen almost made it against the odds. We came to feel the frustration, the bitterness, the loneliness and the love. The final moment of his reflections was sublime. The audience, however, was to be robbed even of that when the band struck up yet another pop-rock rendition of a man who more than any other of our poets exposed his soul and so intensely felt and reflected the pain of an unjust and uncaring world.
The production is set to tour Melbourne, Canberra and Newcastle later this year.
A Grabbit and Runn Production
Lawson - Demons & Dreams
by Brian Matthews
Venue: Theatre Royal, Sydney
Dates: 2nd March to 17th March
Tickets: $69.90; matinee: $64.50
Bookings: Ticketek or 1300 795 012