The STC Actors Company has brought their production of Patrick White’s 1962 play The Season at Sarsaparilla to Melbourne. It is a brilliant opening to the MTC’s 2008 season at the Playhouse.
1962 was a good year for theatre. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway to huge acclaim. Here in Australia The Season at Sarsaparilla was playing to full houses. Both plays have stood the test of time, both use similar themes of pretence and betrayal, and both break taboos of language and the depiction of sex that were indicators of the early sixties.
The Season at Sarsaparilla casts the net wider, examining the lives of three families within a small suburban setting: Mildred Street, Sarsaparilla. More cultural resonances spring to mind: the soap opera Neighbours; the film Lantana (if only because of the symbolic use of an Australian weed in the title!); the lyrics of Little Boxes; and the iconic figure of Dame Edna Everage. The post-war Australian Dream of a brick veneer on a quarter-acre block in the suburbs is under scrutiny. But this is much more than satire. White reveals the real dreams that underlie the veneer, nature that bubbles up through the cracks, passions that undermine the sobriety of normal life.
This-twenty-first century version by the STC Actors Company, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company, succeeds in making the play relevant to a contemporary audience, rather than presenting it as a curiosity from another era. The dynamic set design by Robert Cousins, inspired by the paintings of Howard Arkley, comprises a brick veneer house that takes up most of the revolving stage. Through the windows, once the Venetian blinds are raised, we see the characters interact. When they are out of sight, they play to surveillance cameras so the audience can view them on two screens at either side of the stage. The sound design by David Gilfillan makes use of body microphones, which are mostly unobtrusive and technically excellent.
The house serves as a generic suburban home for the three families portrayed. This involves a lot of tricky manoeuvring on stage, which feeds into the comedy. This is a very funny play, although on this occasion the audience took some time to appreciate the humour. Like Dame Edna, White is sometimes accused of cruelty when his objective is satire. Yet there is great compassion in the writing, and an appreciation of the emotional and moral depths that exist even in the most ordinary of lives.
Director Benedict Andrews has clearly worked hard with this fine ensemble of actors to bring out every nuance of drama, comedy and above all character. It is a tour de force. No single actor should be singled out in this strong team, although Pamela Rabe does tend to dominate the stage with her larger-than-life presence. Her portrayal of the housewife Nola Boyle draws the eye with a dishevelled sensuality and hot-blooded responses. Nola finds ways to live within the confines of the home, in spite of her childlessness, which marks her out as unable to attain the Australian Dream.
Brandon Burke puts in a strong and sensitive performance as Nola’s husband Ernie, the night cart man. Colin Moody, who plays Ernie’s wartime mate Digger Masson, imbues his role with the repressed violence and sexuality of the outsider with nothing to lose. Emily Russell is wonderfully ordinary in a generous womanly way as the pregnant Mavis Knott. Hayley McElhinney plays the pivotal character of Judy Pogson with utter conviction and a lack of artifice that is appropriate to her role. Her younger sister Pippy Pogson is played delightfully by Amber McMahon as a pubescent larrikin who is learning the facts of life, mainly through the antics of a bitch on heat whose howling is used as an aural motif throughout the play. The ‘season’ of the title refers to the six-monthly mating cycle of dogs that indicates the time-span of the play.
There is nothing more satisfying than watching an actor with impeccable timing. Peter Carroll as Girlie Pogson, mother of the two girls and nosey neighbour, is a master of timing, milking every word for comedy and character with physical and vocal dexterity. Yet he never draws attention away from the characters in the spotlight. And while we are on the subject of cross-acting, Alan John does a lovely job as Deedree, Pippy’s pathetic buddy, alongside his main role as Hammond organist and composer for the show. A surprising form of multi-tasking!
The play is an enactment of overlapping lives, and presents as a series of related sub-plots rather than a single plot that drives the action. The themes of nature and life cycles, such as menstruation, pregnancy and fertility, are played out repeatedly. It is a long play (over three hours including intermission) and that may not appeal to modern audiences. But this brilliant revival with its technological enhancement and imaginative staging, along with a finely meshed team of actors, gives White’s play a spring cleaning and brings it up good as new. Girlie Pogson would be proud.
MTC presents a Sydney Theatre Company
The Season at Sarsaparilla
By Patrick White
Venue: The Arts Centre Fairfax Studio
Dates: 9 Jan - 16 Feb 2008
Duration: approximately 3 hours and 5 minutes including a 20 minute interval