Voyage | A is for AtlasPhoto – Helen Rekkor

From its opening moments – cast members self-consciously carrying props onto the stage – Voyage is at pains to alert us to the fact that this is just a play. On an overhead projector, we are given a rundown of England in 1883 – the year that our hero, Thomas Pender, embarks on his journey – and the ensemble discuss among themselves who will play what parts and how the story is to be told.

Reminding us that what we are watching is a construct is a device that can, when appropriately developed, work well (Hayloft Project’s By Their Own Hands being a recent example), but here it is overstated and overplayed. As a result, this is a ship that is in choppy waters from almost the moment it sets sail.

Devised by A is for Atlas, Voyage takes its narrative from the journals of Thomas Pender, an emigrant to Australia and the director’s great, great grandfather. Extracts from his journal are taped to the wall of the theatre and ensemble members take it in turn to read a handful of lines. From these passages, scenes are created: the passengers boarding the ship; Pender and his wife contending with the ship’s drunken doctor to get medicine; the deaths of children; the sailors performing Faust; storms at sea; and contagious diseases that run rampant through the ship.

Punctuating this story of Pender and his 126 days at sea are insistent prompts about the unreliability of history. Addressing each other more than the audience, the ensemble stresses the impossibility of ever knowing the truth about the past; that even Pender’s words on the page shouldn’t be taken at face value. After all, what do we truly know about what he was trying to convey? Who was he writing for and what was the image of himself he was trying to project?

These are important questions, important issues. The problem is that Voyage does little more than reiterate them. And by constantly hammering the notion that “this is all a construct”, the Thomas Pender story is undermined without anything very tangible being offered in its place.

The ensemble (Steve Brown, Kate Parkins, Shannon Quinn, Jon Richards, Brook Sykes and Leone White) is solid, and a credible ship has been devised within the cavernous space of 45 Downstairs, seating on either side of the stage forming the wales of the ship, the uprights of the building serving as masts.

Tamara Searle brings some strong conceptual elements to the direction, each accentuated by Helen Rekkor’s evocative sound design. The storm, the shipboard contagion and the sighting of albatrosses are strikingly realised, and the simple effect of projecting a page of the handwritten journal on the wall of the theatre, and allowing it to pitch up and down to signify the movement of the ship, is enchanting.  

Searle is less successful where characters are required to interact. Here, her direction tends to be static, and if you’re in the wrong sightline, a character can be invisible for an entire scene. Some moments – the checkers game, the back-and-forth about history – are allowed to play too long and, ironically, the one scene that could have held longer than it did – Pender (Leone White) beseeching the air for deliverance – is cut short. 

The experience of emigrants to Australia in the nineteenth-century, and the somewhat neglected story of what they suffered to get here, is certainly worth telling, but it’s almost as though Voyage feels it has to apologise for taking on such a straightforward narrative. There would have been drama enough in what Thomas Pender and his family endured, but there’s a lingering feeling that the best part of it – the pages and pages of his actual journal – has been left to hang on the theatre wall. 

A is for Atlas presents
The Actual and Properly Truthful Account of the Emigration of Thomas Pender

Director Tamara Searle

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: 20 - 30 June 2013
Tickets: $33 – $23

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