Left – Naomi Rukavina and Heather Mitchell. Cover – the cast. Photos – Prudence Upton
Death, dying, and learning how to live again may not seem like the most entertaining of themes for a play superficially about baby boomer beachfront holidays in the late 1960s. However, Michael Gow’s modern Australian classic Away is a play in which the deeply funny and the unsettlingly tragic go hand in hand. Opening on the final curtain of a play-within-a-play, a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are introduced to three families. Two are the respective parents of the high school seniors and lead actors, Tom and Meg, while the third is their headmaster Roy and his wife Coral.
All three of these small families have their conflicts. In the best tradition of straightjacketed suburban respectability, they try their hardest to stifle and hide these issues both from without and even within. Tom has a big problem that his parents think he’s in the dark about, but which none of them will discuss openly with each other. They are forever trying to cover their mutual pain with masks of cheerfulness. Meg’s mother Gwen is a constantly irritable woman angered by and dissatisfied with everything in life. She is consumed with aspirational bitterness and constantly on the verge of exploding with venomous bile at her uncomprehending daughter and placid, placating husband Jim. Roy lost his son to the Vietnam War thanks to the conscription lottery, and his wife Coral’s mental health has suffered ever since. The headmaster is at his wits’ end with her eccentric behaviour, embarrassing him at social functions where she either ignores people entirely or unnerves them with her distracted, esoteric words.
The difficulties of human communication are a constant throughout this play, as characters alternately refuse to speak aloud what is on their minds, or speak far too much, with mortifying consequences. Talking (or yelling) at cross-purposes, or from positions of near-irreconcilable difference in perspective are also frequent, and a profound lack of understanding between even those notionally closest is common in this world of damaged, disconnected characters. These are people haunted by the past, the lack of a foreseeable future ahead of them, or indeed both.
All three families initially go their separate ways, each travelling “away” to the coast for the Christmas holidays, the following morning after the one-night-only performance of the school play. There are nominal differences in class between each family, or at any rate differences in the types of holidays they can afford, leading them to fairly disparate destinations, about all of which Gwen is quick to offer scathing opinions. For a while we follow the separate strands of their stories as their escalating interpersonal crises bring issues to a head. That is until, much like another Shakespeare drama which will later be referenced in the play’s conclusion, nature itself seems to mirror their tempestuous emotions, manifesting in a devastating storm.
As a result, most of the members of this trio of families are almost literally washed together, and their previously very awkward and even hostile interactions give way to unexpected new combinations, revelations, personal breakthroughs, and potential internal reconciliations. Despite its suburban nature and domestic subject matter, Gow’s play has an epic quality to it, with characters and emotions which are both heightened and highly credible, almost archly theatrical yet highly relatable.
Director Matthew Lutton’s production is similarly a mix of the grandiose and the quotidian, transforming the broad letterbox stage of the Opera House’s Drama Theatre into a faintly abstract space of milled lumber and upright beams, representing everything from a school’s performance hall, to a resort ballroom, to sparsely-forested bushland. Minimal use of props or scenery leaves much in the hands of the fine ensemble of actors and the mostly unobtrusive sound and lighting design. This mediated minimalism may well lull you into a false sense of security regarding the staging.
Saying that a narrative has a twist ending is something of a spoiler in and of itself – even if you don’t reveal anything about the twist in question, which often puts critics in a bind of not wanting to ruin a surprise for future audiences, yet conversely such an omission can leave a major pertinent discussion point of the artistic endeavour unaddressed. Something similarly unexpected occurs here, not so much with the narrative of the play itself but with its staging. Suffice it to say that Lutton’s direction in concert with the production design by Dale Ferguson involves many flourishes of non-literal theatricality in which figures from the opening Shakespeare performance bleed through into the reality of the distressed characters’ experiences. This culminates in a scenic coup de théâtre that is as startling and thematically effective a representation of the character’s emotional upheaval, as it is technically impressive in execution.
A very fine ensemble cast brings this play vividly to life, ably balancing its mild theatricality with the production’s dips into magic realism, equally effective doubling in secondary roles as when masterfully embodying their primary characters. The always-excellent Glenn Hazeldine perfectly embodies the alternating helplessness and angry despair of the long-suffering Roy, while Marco Chiappi is heartbreakingly good in an understated and perfectly-pitched performance as Meg’s softly-spoken father Jim. Ever the peacemaker, he quietly seeks to contextualise his wife Gwen’s toxic behaviour for their uncomprehending teenage daughter.
As a play filled with richly written female roles, particular plaudits go to Natasha Herbert as the mentally unwell Coral, and especially Heather Mitchell as the hypercritical rageaholic Gwen. Both are roles as “difficult women” who are complicated and, at face value, very hard to like. In the hands of lesser actors they could quite easily be played far too broadly, potentially sabotaging the audience’s journey towards understanding and accepting the characters’ flaws and affording them some measure of empathy, even sympathy. Fortunately Herbert and Mitchell are both superb, and this production would be hard to imagine without them.
Given its popular reputation and history in the school curriculum, Away is a more contemplative and even faintly opaque play than one might suspect if coming to it for the first time or after a long absence. But it is richly rewarding if one is willing to take it, and this rather visionary production, on its own terms.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Michael Gow
Director Matthew Lutton
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 18 February – 25 March 2017
Tickets: $84 – $61
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au
A Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre production