Left - Terry Norris, Anne Phelan and Rhys McConnochie. Cover - Pamela Rabe and Rhys McConnochie. Photos - Jeff Busby
Inspired by those famous words of Dylan Thomas and the story of Captain Scott’s trek to Antarctica in the early 1900s, Do Not Go Gentle by Patricia Cornelius is a beautifully rendered theatre piece. With a variety of dramatic responses to its themes this play gives a lovely sense of what’s possible on stage: images, music, opera, and simple poetic language; there is much to love about Do Not Go Gentle.
Seeing a group of senior actors on stage is a refreshing change. Without mawkishness, the play tells, as truthfully as possible, of being old and near death. A sense of the living decay of old age where attachment to experience still exists but one has only a diminished palette to paint with, is juxtaposed with a narrative of Scott’s second, ill-fated voyage to the South Pole. Scott kept diaries, of course, and his words feature as part of the drama.
Familiar, much-loved faces on stage, seven of our finest including Paul English and Pamela Rabe, and obvious audience investment in the project of a playwright dear to Melbourne make for a satisfyingly shared experience of theatre. In an often self-absorbed, adolescent culture refusing to mature gracefully and hysterically fearing death, a measured examination of the end of life is timely. We all do have that one thing in common: closing night. Performances in Do Not Go Gentle are superb; the occasional fluff only added poignancy to an examination of extreme old age.
There are moments of radiant theatrical eloquence here, expressing the burden of a dead son, the loss of a cherished partner, of one’s country (‘we put up our flag. Another country took it down,’) and the loss of one’s self … most elegant of all are the ways in which the elderly characters are variously dispatched as the play draws to its close.
The collapsed ceiling of the set instantly creates a sense of fragility and decay. Inspired design includes the use of the laneway outside 45 Downstairs, particularly beautiful in the closing scene.
I have some reservations, however; many of the scenes were similar in length and rhythm, with repetitive action and the cast making pronouncements in turn rather than reacting to each other in conversation – scenes in duotone – all this gives a dated feel to the piece. Do Not Go Gentle isn’t meant to be naturalistic theatre but without one person’s story to follow, without personal psychological dynamics between characters or an individual journey to identity with, plus a slow pace to some scenes and with those being to do with rhetoric and theme rather than with plot development or character growth, I often lost a sense of engagement with the piece. You want the weighting of the story to be with one character. The actors doing ‘dual duty’ as nursing home residents and Antarctic explorers occasionally called for too great a suspension of disbelief; they are too contradictory as concepts to always successfully hold. The Scott journey metaphor wearied at times when trudging through the snowdrifts of life became a trudge in real time. My complaint, too, is that there is something relentlessly 1970s about it all, some kind of obviousness. You can see the flag being waved.
Perhaps the fact that the style of the piece didn’t have me consistently absorbed is to do with familiarity; the rest of the audience on opening night, many of them stalwarts of Melbourne’s early indie theatre scene, were nigh on rapturous at the end. I am on my own here...
Do Not Go Gentle
by Patricia Cornelius
Directed by Julian Meyrick
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: 6 - 29 August 2010
Times: Tuesday - Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 5.00pm
Tickets: Full $45/Conc $37.50; Senior's Card $40/Groups 10+ $40
Bookings: (03) 9662 9966 | www.fortyfivedownstairs.com