The best narratives are like jigsaw puzzles: it won’t all come together at once, you might have to ponder over it for some time, but piece by piece a picture will form.
Michael Gow seems to upend the box on the audience in his altogether cerebral Toy Symphony with few clues as to where things fit. Some of it does – vividly, even; poignantly – but the sum of its parts equals a fairly baffling whole.
Gow, Queensland Theatre Company’s resident director, here pens the story of a writer falling to pieces (an almost irresistible allegory for critics). There is clarity in that at least; Roland Henning (Chris Pitman) is a complex and interesting character and we can start to piece together his past (played out on stage) and the impact on his psychology.
It is a bright mind, a vibrantly overactive imaginative, but suffering the trauma of humiliating repression as a child. Roland can conjure people from his thoughts – in the flesh. Alexander The Great appears from underneath the floorboards; Scott of the Antarctic slides out of the air conditioning vent; Joan of Arc makes a fiery entrance. He uses it to win friends and take advantage of his jock crush Steve Gooding (Ed Wightman).
The school headmaster (Wightman again) reprimands the boy for his sins; a councillor suppresses it further. He finds a soulmate in Nick (Daniel Mulvihill) who champions his imagination, and his writing, but he is suddenly taken away from Roland in a defining moment of pain and loss.
Roland is at an end – in writing, in what comes next. Now a successful playwright, his past catches up and the loss of his parents sends him into a spiral of drug addiction and, shatteringly, writer’s block. He reluctantly visits a therapist, Nina (Lizzy Falkland), who draws out these moments to explore the creative impasse.
Roland’s frustration is palpable – because as the audience, the paths we’re led down often seem like dead ends. Perhaps that is the point.
The pieces that fit together provide for compelling vignettes: the unresolved issues of sexuality (which haunt in a relationship with university student and wannabe actor Daniel, also played by Mulvihill); the heartbreaking picture of grief (Roland’s telephone monologue after his mother’s funeral is particularly affecting); the mental wrecking ball that the creative process can become and the strain when the juices run dry.
But other scenes seem out of place. The unexplained ties to his childhood home in the Sydney suburb of Como (teacher Mrs Walkham, played with grace and humour by Barbara Lowing, delivers a lengthy and pointless lecture on geographical history) are among themes that jar in piecing together the character.
Roland’s “wall of words”, as the therapist describes it, can be impenetrably thick.
Pitman never leaves the stage for two acts and more than two hours, transcending generations from boy to man and back again. It’s an exhaustive performance; indeed the whole cast (directed by Geordie Brookman) handles their various roles – and negotiates designer Jonathon Oxlade’s clever set and elaborate customers – seamlessly.
This piece, long-awaited coming a decade after Gow’s last play, won numerous plaudits when it premiered in Sydney in 2007. It’s an ambitious work; a window, however foggy, to the creative soul. It certainly delivers Brisbane audiences the most interesting character from Gow’s otherwise disappointing season of new, locally-produced work.
But a play that talks of the “shared experience” of theatre over other mediums actually distances itself from the audience with its puzzle that, days after seeing it, you’ll still struggle to piece together.
Queensland Theatre Company presents
by Michael Gow
A co-production with State Theatre Company of South Australia
Director Geordie Brookman
Venue: Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
Dates: 9 November – 12 December 2009
Tickets: $38 - $58 Under 30: $30
Bookings: QTIX 136 246 or www.qldtheatreco.com.au