The set design for Daniel Keene’s The Nightwatchman is simple and lovely, three hanging pillars of fabric collaged with peeling layers of old wall paper, provide a nice metaphor for the layers of experience we are to understand have taken place in the garden of this family’s home. The play, directed by Matt Scholten features a father, Bill, splendidly played by Roger Oakley, and his son (Brad Williams; less convincing) and daughter (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley) spending a last night together at their family home. There are the usual tensions and unmet expectations in their shared history, old resentments along with old joys. A diary kept by their dead wife and mother hints at perhaps secrets to be revealed, but nothing so interesting occurs, alas. Bill and the dead Genevieve were mostly happy, more or less. The grown-up children are unresolved and unfulfilled in their lives, not quite ready to let their father or the past go, whereas Bill, about to retire to a nursing home, is accepting of the fact that his remaining years are few. He has already lost his sight and his wife and is now losing his memory. He has made his peace.
The problem I found with The Nightwatchman is that it is so self-consciously beautiful it's bloodless. Bill’s flowing and lyrical pronouncements, although he orates in sentences perfectly weighted, become annoying after a while. He rhapsodises and philosophises in gently drunken poetry, balanced to be sure with little gritty bits of homespun wisdom providing flashes of humour but he is too resolved; having a protagonist who doesn’t want anything fails to conjure any real conflict or drama, and the other two don’t know what they want. Yes, Bill’s emotional honesty is subtlety juxtaposed with what remains unspoken by his son and daughter but you don't get a satisfying sense of subtext and very little actually happens, they drink a lot of red wine and there is a lot of reminiscing in and about the garden along with much thoughtful and nostalgic gazing off into the middle distance.
After the interval it gets even more precious and beautiful with its gently meandering melodic piano score, repeated references to Monet’s bloody garden for god’s sake, and even more poignant and meaningful observations about the changing of seasons and flowers and colours and the fading of light (“we must never regret what might have been”), so much so that this jaded reviewer started to feel a little ill. The characters of Helen and Michael seem too self-indulgent to produce much sympathy, they take themselves seriously indeed, and the moment where Helen comes out in her dad’s old dressing gown, the one she’d worn in a school play, really tipped it over into sentimentality for me.
The language is undeniably exquisite and I think this play would make a wonderful short story, but with Bill being so sorted and neither of the younger characters nor the dynamics between them being idiosyncratic or interestingly dramatic I found I couldn’t care about them or sustain any interest in their fate.
If Theatre presents
by Daniel Keene
Venue: Theatre Works | 14 Acland St, St Kilda
Dates: 25 November to 12 December, 2010
Times: Wednesday to Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday 4th and 11th @ 2pm, Sunday 28th and 12th @ 2pm
Tickets: Full: $28.00 Conc: $25.00 Gp 10+: $15.00 Prev/Mat: $15.00
Bookings: 9534 3388 | www.theatreworks.org.au