I kept hearing dire warnings about Patrick White’s plays before I attended Night on Bald Mountain. I was prepared for the worst. What a wonderful surprise to find myself laughing, crying and thoroughly entertained by the Malthouse Theatre production. What could be construed as weaknesses – the loose structure, mixture of dramatic styles and unpredictable characters – were embraced as challenges and opportunities by a brilliant cast and visionary director.
In the first ever Melbourne production of this 1964 play, director Matthew Lutton has put his experience of directing opera to use, throwing out White’s elaborate stage directions and unleashing the drama by focussing on the archetypes of human nature, their dramatic confrontations, and the elemental forces of nature. The dialogue – ‘all talk, talk, talk and nothing ever said’ as housekeeper Mrs Sibley (Sue Jones) says – never overrides the dominant physicality of the performances.
The set (by Dale Ferguson) immediately sets up the epic scale of the play. The mountain of the title is much more than a background to the story and its power has been captured in a marvellously designed, bald plywood set that fills the stage up to the roof, hides a mysterious interior behind blackened doorways, provides four storeys for the action to be played out and allows for several scenes to be running at once. On the topmost platform, bassist/vocalist Ida Dueland Hansen provides a subtle and ominous accompaniment throughout.
First onstage is comedienne Julie Forsyth, who inhabits with characteristic relish the role of goatherd/seer/keeper of the mountain, Miss Quadling, a wise and barren woman who has no schooling beyond the teachings of nature and her beloved goats. Out of White’s poetic text and her own vaudevillean skills, Forsyth conjures the smell of animals, the misty dawns on the mountainside and the devilish antics of her darling goats. By the end, when comedy has turned to tragedy, Forsyth gives her down-to-earth character the stature of a Greek chorus.
The other residents on the mountain are Professor Hugo Sword (Peter Carroll) and his alcoholic wife Miriam (Melita Jurisic), who have a house-guest, a colleague of the professor’s Dennis Craig (Luke Mullins). Into this reclusive household enters the pivotal character, nurse Stella Summerhayes (Nikki Shiels), who has come to care for Miriam. The bassist underlines her impending doom. Played at first with fitting innocence and optimism, Shiels handles the abrupt shifts of character (and the steep climb up the perilous plywood mountain) with agility. Mullins is less convincing, but is a good foil for the professor’s literary discourses.
Playing the estranged couple, Carroll and Jurisic maintain a fine balance between them: he, the rigid intellectual with the ‘tidy mind’ and she, the intuitive, sensuous woman, both frustrated in their incompleteness. Carroll portrays the professor with extraordinary precision, in painfully self-conscious body language that evolves seamlessly into intimidation and violence. Jurisic, back on the Australian stage after an absence of six years, portrays the alcoholic wife with operatic bravura, in a state of dishabille, her face contorted and her body collapsing in sensual abandonment.
The high point of this fearless production is in the scene in which Forsyth and Jurisic share the stage, and a bottle of whiskey. The energy generated by these two women is phenomenal. It is the women who pull the emotional strings in this play. White has drawn four female characters to tease out the strands of sensuality, compassion, longing and pragmatism. The fourth female is Jones’s Mrs Sibley, the housekeeper who tries to maintain routine in the chaotic household. Jones injects the drama with perfectly timed comic lines in a role that parallels Forsyth’s goat woman, but with none of her joy, her vision restricted to the plates of braised kidneys on the table.
This revival of Night on Bald Mountain is a work of passion, a tribute to one of our great writers. The excellent team of actors and production crew have brought new life to a text that is rich in meaning and that, played out on this monumental stage set, has the power to move, challenge and entertain.
Malthouse Theatre presents
Night on Bald Mountain
by Patrick White
Director Matthew Lutton
Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The Malthouse
Dates: 5 – 25 May, 2014
Times: Tues 6.30pm; Wed/Thurs/Fri 7.30pm; Sat 2pm & 7.30pm; Sunday 5pm; extra matinees.
Duration: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Tickets $30 – 60
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au | 03 9685 5111