Gothic literature has a long history in Australia, particularly where the Gothicism hovers at the edges. Think The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wake in Fright. With The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell, Reg Cribb takes up the mantle of this ever-changing genre to come up with an intriguing and original play that takes you through some nicely unexpected twists and turns.
I’ve always admired Cribb’s writing talent (he’s also a talented actor). There is a surety and deftness to the way in which he marries beautiful lyrical prose with sparse colloquial language, and in The Haunting there are moments of sheer brilliance:
My father would ride into the mist of dawn before the age of the machine. He would hobble his horse all day to browse the rich kangaroo grass while he and his farmhands swung their axes and drove their wedges with barely a break. They worked so hard that you could almost hear their spines snap and see their sweat merge as one great river. A river that is formed just from the sheer fucking love of the work and the mateship and the wordless lust of the land…
The lyricism and the cutting colloquial language form a rich text not unlike Patrick White and the way in which he paints a Gothic picture of both the outback and suburbia that are equally chilling and indelibly Australian. Cribb evokes the fear of isolation, in both the outback and in suburbia, along with racial issues and the search for a national identity that’s not steeped in insecurity, and underwrites it all with a scathing Aussie sarcasm.
In The Haunting, iconic bush poet Daniel Gartrell (James Hagan) is haunted by hundreds of black cockatoos after a past event where Aboriginal sacred ground has been desecrated. The evil presence in the play is mostly hinged upon Gartrell’s much lauded and loathed father, the violent and racist farmer whose chilling last demand of his son becomes Daniel Gartrell’s ultimate mental undoing.
Gartrell is a recluse, haunted by his past and gradually losing his grip on reality. He’s too afraid to leave his crumbling old home lest the cockatoos attack him. Into his small, dark world enters Craig Castevich (Will O’Mahony), a handsome young actor from Bondi, set to play Gartrell in a film about his life. Craig is so determined to study his unwilling subject that he announces with naïve gusto that he will gradually disappear altogether; “I will become you Mr Gartrell.” It is only at the dark and unexpected conclusion of the play that you witness the chilling consequences of those impassioned words.
Also at the end of the play we see an unexpected emergence of the femme fatale. Gartrell’s long suffering daughter Sarah (Sophia Hall), having managed to seduce (in a comically Australian larrikin way) the naïve Craig, then hovers over him like a black widow spider who has carefully orchestrated every step of her ‘kill’. Sarah represents, in a Kate Grenvillesque sort of style, the damaged, victimised heroine who rises up triumphantly. Hall is remarkable in this role. She throws herself into a set of distinctly female ockerisms with no hesitation whatsoever, and pulls off the tricky character flip at the end with just the right amount of gravitas and salaciousness.
The complex marriage of styles and characters’ stories in The Haunting is not without its problems. The issues of Aboriginal scared ground and racial divides comes in so close to the end that it almost feels like an afterthought, and from the third row the fight scene was far from convincing. The naivety of Craig, the young actor, is a little too much to swallow, and there are moments where the plot devices are obvious. As a whole, though, The Haunting is a brave new work from one of our best playwrights, with some truly wonderful acting. Hagan is phenomenal in this play. The monologue about his father brought me to tears, and his characterisation of his father is played with remarkable economy. Recent WAAPA graduate and Perth Theatre newcomer Will O’Mahony does an admirable job in a difficult role, and, as mentioned, Hall is faultless in the clichéd and complex role of Sarah Gartrell.
Kingsley Reeve’s sound design, as always, is wonderful, although I did think that a didgeridoo sound at some point would have been an effective addition. Andrew Lake’s set and lighting design work wonderfully in the space. The beams of light that criss-cross through the broken flats make for some great effects, so much so I think more could have been used of this.
The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is a great way for The Perth Theatre Company to wrap up their 2008 season. It’s a dark and complex work that takes you places you don’t expect it to. And that is the joy of it. See it with a loquacious friend and then go out for a drink afterwards; you’ll talk about it for hours, trust me.
Delira Productions in association with Perth Theatre Company
The Haunting of Danny Gartrell
by Reg Cribb
Venue: Subiaco Arts Centre 1-15 November 2008
Season: Saturday 1-15 November 2008 - Mondays 6.30pm; Tuesday – Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday 5 & 12 November 11am; Saturday 8 & 15 November 2.15pm
Tickets: Stan: $40 / Conc: $33 / Groups (6+): $36.50
Bookings: BOCS Ticketing 9484 1133 www.bocsticketing.com.au