Once in Royal David’s City | BelvoirLeft – Helen Morse & Brendan Cowell. Cover – Anthony Phelan, Helen Morse & Brendan Cowell. Photos – Ellis Parrinder

New research from Oxfam reports that the richest 85 people in the world are as wealthy as the poorest 3 billion and that 7 in 10 people live in countries where economic inequality has increased, with Australia second on the list. The current global economic milieu is the context for Michael Gow’s new play, Once in Royal David’s City, which is both fiercely political and deeply personal.

Brendan Cowell is marvelous as the fragile, furious, profound, self-centred, idealistic, passionate, well intentioned, rude, awkward, desperate middle aged theatre director, Will Drummond, who is in crisis. Not only is he dealing with the death of his elderly parents and has quit his job directing a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, but he is also grappling with politics, the role of art and the importance of critical thinking.

Once in Royal David’s City is both about the overwhelming effect of the death of one’s parents and an invocation to the audience to go beyond what is fed to them and to be mindful of the economic and politic structures that underpin our culture. The consummate skill with which Michael Gow marries these very different, parallel strands, giving them equal power, makes this a wonderful play. Eamon Flack’s unpretentious and deceptively clever direction is matched by the pared back set and lighting design by Nick Schlieper, delivering a production that is tightly focused on the central themes of loss, control and the need for knowledge.

Drummond is a character very caught up in his own world and with his own feelings. He doesn’t like not being in control. He was an anxious child. He has witnessed the complete lack of control his sheet metal worker father (Anthony Phelan) had over his life, being made redundant with no payout for 30 years of service. Then he watched him painfully succumb to cancer. So when his mother becomes ill he is in denial and furiously rails against the doctor’s advice.

Helen Morse plays Jeannie, Will’s plucky, determined and adoring mother. Morse is so very small and light that she looks like she is almost disappearing in front of your eyes, but the energy she radiates on stage is white hot; incandescent. It is clear that Drummond really loves his mother yet, strangely, it is only towards the end of the play, when Jeannie regains consciousness, that he touches her for the first time. He hadn’t kissed her, held her hand, stroked her cheek, or stroked her arm – none of the normal affection a beloved child might show towards a beloved mother. It is as though Drummond is too caught up in his reactions to his mother’s illness, or his denial of it, to be concerned for her comfort. For all of his political eloquence, he finds it almost impossible to express his feelings of unequivocal love. And this duality is what is so human about Drummond. He loves his mother but his fear of sounding like a phony almost stops him from articulating what is genuinely in his heart. He is in a constant battle between his heart and his head.

He feels this about art too. Now a theatre director he is still, at heart, a working class boy who is deeply resentful of privilege. He champions the ability of art to be a dangerous, challenging force. He listens to the Christmas carols and rages against the ones he thinks are too smaltzy. He is excoriating about the young Cambridge choristers on the television – “the Jeremys…each and every one products of the English imperial ruling class”. And yet he is divided too. As he listens, he is so moved by the pure beauty of their singing that his love of the music overrides his resentment. Listening to it he says, “even the English can be redeemed… brutality and greed forgiven…and all will be right with everything.” Again, Drummond feels the same about the triumphant Hark the Herald Angels Sing in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, describing it as “naive and true all at once”.

Drummond takes aim at the mindless “ocean of ugliness” that is on television – the contemporary opiate of the masses. He despairs that education is marks driven and strips real meaning out of what is taught. “Is making something teachable the best way to neutralise it?” he asks. (I wonder if this insight comes from Gow’s direct experience, given that his highly regarded play, Away is one of the most regularly taught plays on the syllabus.)

Will is not interested when a drama teacher at a wealthy school wants him to teach a class on Brecht, but when he learns that the headmaster glibly jokes about the death of Marxism, because “how can you have a class war if there’s no longer a class system”, he feels duty bound to give the lecture, together with a potted Marxist reading of capitalism – the ideology that underpinned Brecht’s theatrical vision. Drummond isn’t invoking the Communist Manifesto or calling for a class war, but he does want to warn these privileged students against complacency and ignorance. He wants to equip them with knowledge so, whether they end up being part of the 1% who control the wealth or the 99% who have little control they might, at least, better understand their world.

While Brendan Cowell carries most of this play, supported by Helen Morse, the rest of the ensemble, each playing a variety of roles, is terrific. Anthony Phelan, Helen Buday, Maggie Dence, Lech Mackiewicz, Harry Greenwood and Tara Morice all provide cameo performances that bring humour and/or poignancy to enrich the play.

Brecht’s ideas inform much of the discourse of the play as well as the theatrical style. Gow uses Brechtian devices like breaking down the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience, peppering the action with songs (beautifully arranged by Alan John) and comic vignettes. He also makes the heart of the play – losing his parents – emotional and very moving. As Drummond, quite rightly, tells the audience, it is an often misunderstood element of Brecht’s work that the alienation effect means that the audience can’t participate emotionally. The intersection of the intellect and the emotions, at both a structural and thematic level, is what makes Michael Gow’s play so interesting, so affecting and so immensely enjoyable.

Belvoir presents
Once in Royal David’s City
by Michael Gow

Director Eamon Flack

Venue: Upstairs Theatre | Belvoir St Surry Hills, NSW
Dates: 8 February - 23 March, 2014
Bookings: belvoir.com.au

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