The Floating World | Griffin TheatreLeft – Peter Kowitz, Shingo Usami (front – Justin Stewart Cotta). Cover – Peter Kowitz and Justin Stewart Cotta. Photos – Brett Boardman

The Floating World was first performed in 1974. This Griffin Theatre production of it, almost forty years later, maintains its seventies setting, but this is in no sense a museum piece. John Romeril’s searing exploration of PTSD and survivors’ guilt is almost alarmingly current in a climate in which young Australians are still going to war.

The Floating World follows Les Harding (Peter Kowitz), a WWII veteran and former prisoner of war who is now on long service leave. He and his wife Irene (Valerie Bader) are on the 1974 Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom cruise to Japan. Slowly at first, but then more and more regularly, memories of his horrific wartime experiences are triggered in Les, until he descends into a chaotic world where he cannot tell delusion from reality, past from present. His ghosts and his demons are as real to him as his wife, a woman he no longer feels like he knows and cannot relate to.

This play is an Australian classic for a reason. Although it is technically the story of one man, it is epic in its scope and towering in its ambition. A small story becomes a large one, the play a powerful piece of anti-war art. Although it dips into a little proselytisation in its final stages (two characters narrate direct to the audience at the end, a dramatic technique which did not sit particularly well with the rest of the play), it is not heavy-handed in its approach. It is subtle, nuanced, and layered, an effect that Sam Strong has mirrored in his direction.

Peter Kowitz is outstanding in this production as Les. Even putting aside his wholly believable portrayal of Les’s post-traumatic struggles, he turns in what is probably the best drunk acting I have ever seen. He is ably supported by Valerie Bader as Les’s wife Irene and Tony Llewellyn-Jones as their new friend Herbert Robinson. If the writing of the play has one flaw, it is that it focuses on Les’s journey to the detriment of others. I would have loved to see more of how living with Les (both pre- and post-trauma) has affected Irene. Additionally, there is an important distinction noted several times in the play between officer and soldier, and I would have liked to learn more about how Robinson’s experiences as an officer differed from Les in the ranks. Nevertheless, both Bader and Llewellyn-Jones do a wonderful job with the material they have, and should be commended for their performances.

The Floating World is not a plot piece. The external setting is merely a backdrop for the internal struggle: how is Les supposed to be able to cope with his life after the horrors he has endured? He is an ordinary man, whose experiences are not extraordinary for those that served alongside him. How, then, is he to reconcile the fact that he is alive and well and physically whole and many of them are not? Having survived, how is he to deal with surviving? These questions are all percolating below the surface in The Floating World. Within the world of the play, there is no satisfactory answer, no easy solution. It does not seek to valorise Les, nor excuse his behaviour to those around him (which is regularly horrible) or his xenophobia. He is not a heroic character. Instead, he is a very ordinary character, to whom terrible things have happened. If this is the lot of survivors, the play asks, is going to war in the first place worth it? This is a fascinating and sensitive production of a play which has arguably only grown in relevance. Highly recommended.

Griffin Theatre presents
The Floating World
by John Romeril

Director Sam Strong

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre | 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross NSW
Dates: 4 October – 16 November 2013
Tickets: $49 – $32
Bookings: 02 9361 3817

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