Reg Cribb’s The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is a play that calls for more than just one viewing or reading. Within its text and Straightjacket Productions’ production of it, there is much to get one’s head around. Having only been able to view this play once, its vast themes and shifting times are still turning, rather uncooperatively, in my mind.
Craig Castevich (Samuel Johnson) is a young actor from the city who’s just scored his first leading role in the biopic of Australian bush poet, Daniel Gartrell (John Wood). Eagre to portray the poet authentically, Castevich has been researching Gartrell, but the poem after which the film is titled (Mt Ragged) has never been published in its entirety. It is missing its last stanza, and the events that occurred at Mt Ragged, not to mention the poet himself, are a mystery.
Shortly before filming is to begin, Castevich arrives without notice on the doorstep of Gartrell’s derelict house in the leafy outer suburbs in the hope of gaining some answers as to who this man really is and what happened at Mt Ragged. His first discovery is that the poet lives a hermit-like existence, in a near constant state of drunkenness. It also becomes clear that Gartrell is a man haunted by his family history and past, and the guilt that he refuses to face and share. But it will also be a past that those around him find inescapable and it will eventually haunt Castevich himself.
Cribb is adventurous in the number of themes and moods he presents in this play. It begins with the development of the unlikely friendship between the young, enthusiastic actor and the aging, reluctant writer. Castevich has much to learn, and Gartrell is more than happy to teach him a lesson or two along the way. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all will turn out to be that if he wants to know where Gartrell’s poetry comes from and his state of mind when he writes, he must in a sense become him.
It is with the unexpected introduction of Gartrell’s devoted daughter Sarah (Marcella Russo) that this rather slow and at times humorous play delves further into the theme of self-identity. Without a mother, and isolated both physically and by her father’s silence, Sarah can trace her family history and heritage only by the contents of an old trunk. She is desperate to share this and therefore herself, and she is in fact the only character in this play to reveal any great depth of feeling or desire.
As fragments of Gartrell’s past and his childhood in the Australian outback are painstakingly revealed, the questioning of identity also becomes that of an Australian national identity, and how this is shaped to a great extent by the land. Like many plays, literature, and films before it, this play demonstrates the powerful and rather mysterious force the land has on humans and the way it has become difficult over time to distinguish between truth and legend. And yet, it is sure to challenge any of the romantic notions surrounding this.
Contributing to this sense of ambiguity is the difficulty in telling the difference between Gartrell’s drunken rants, his imagination, his jokes, his storytelling, and reality. There are many shifts in time, not least of which suggest that Gartrell and his daughter may not be of the present reality.
In this play there are two environments depicted – that of Gartrell’s house, and that of the bush. There is Gartrell’s living area with a few pieces of old furniture, and another door leading into what would be a bedroom. To either side of the stage are bare, white branches of ghost gums with a few sparse leaves. Against the black they are indeed striking. But Jacquie Holland’s set design also features a raised wall at the rear of the house comprising of coloured doors and drawer fronts, in various colours, shapes and sizes. Only one of these doors is functional, leading out to some sort of abyss that is felt but never seen. Despite what these doors and drawers may signify, they are distracting. This is already a complicated play crying out for simplicity, and a sparse set is certainly one area that this could have been achieved.
Sound designer and composer Dave Ellis has composed a rather creepy soundtrack, including those of the black cockatoos that haunt Gartrell’s house. This is accompanied by the intermittent voiceovers of Gartrell (presumably reading exerts from the poem of Mt Ragged but one couldn’t be certain) and finally by some rather eerie imagery. Again, this could all be toned down a little. There is, as it turns out, ample horror in the text alone.
Amidst all of this there are some fine performances. It is a treat to see Wood perform live, and as Gartrell he takes command of the stage. Johnson is given less to work with in his character of Castevich but whilst he portrays the naivety of Castevich well, he tends to either under or over play the few moments he is given to exhibit any real passion. Russo is the surprise in this work, aptly embodying Sarah’s compassion and then wide-eyed desperation.
Director Lucy Freeman quite skilfully manages the changes of pace in this work and ultimately succeeds in bringing to life Cribb’s text. But there is a sense that the production as a whole could be stripped back. If there is one thing missing from this production it’s the provoking of great emotion. The story at the crux of this play certainly has the ability to achieve this but could perhaps do so more effectively if the audience was allowed to focus on the text and performances.
By the play’s end there is no mistaking that one of its primary objectives is to demonstrate that the sense of guilt felt by Gartrell is not particular to him. It is a burden that is in turn inherited and shared by others. This play that began with an amateur actor trying to find out what makes the man behind his leading role tick, becomes a play about everyone’s quest to make sense of who they are.
Despite its complications The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is certainly intriguing, and given that art seems all too frequently to be less than stimulating, it is worthy of any theatregoer’s braving of Melbourne’s cold autumn nights to see.
Ellis Productions in association with Peter Marks present
A Straightjacket Production
The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell
by Reg Cribb
Directed by Lucy Freeman
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: 20 May – 12 June, 2011
Times: Tues-Sat 8pm, Sun 6.30pm
Tickets: Cheap Tuesday $25, Full: $38, Conc; $33
Bookings: 03 9662 9966 | http://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com