Once In Royal David's City | Black Swan State Theatre Company & Queensland TheatreLeft – Jason Klarwein and Adam Sollis. Cover – Penny Everingham and Emma Jackson. Photos – Philip Gostelow

Michael Gow’s writing has been long celebrated in the world of Australian theatre. His breakthrough play, Away, has been performed on what feels like every community theatre stage in Australia. Notably, Away earned recognition for its melding of the utterly Australian Christmas family holiday with Elizabethan elements – Gow formulated much of the play sitting backstage during Shakespearean performances. His latest work, Once in Royal David’s City, draws on many of the elements of Away – Christmas, a family holiday by the beach, a terminal illness – but uses the structures and devices of Brecht’s epic theatre to spread its message. In this co-production from Black Swan State Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre, love and loss are explored in a riveting performance that pulls out all the stops.

Once in Royal David’s City follows the journey of Will (Jason Klarwein), a theatre director with a penchant for Bertolt Brecht’s work. Following the death of his father (Steve Turner), he invites his mother (Penny Everingham) to a holiday by the beach for Christmas, celebrating their once-traditional family trip. Upon her arrival it is clear she is ill, and Will is forced to confront the possibility of her passing over the holiday season.

The play is both a beautifully compassionate story about a man’s grief, and somewhat of a ‘how-to’ guide for epic theatre. It is self-referential – in some of the earliest scenes, Will discusses Brecht and his work, and there are scenes that, although cleverly masked, are designed to spell out the form and style for the layperson. Scenes are often played out in small vignettes, the fourth wall is not so much broken as actively decommissioned, characters are fluid and actors move constantly between roles, and scene changes are completed live by the actors – all in staying true to the blueprints of Epic Theatre. It can be hard to execute these elements well, but with Sam Strong at the directional helm, each moment finds its place just so, and the overall vision cohesively and powerfully supports the writing.

Stephen Curtis’s intelligent design wonderfully complements the acting. Typically, Epic work is able to be performed on a very low budget, but Curtis utilises the resources at his disposal to create a highly adaptable space that magnifies the fluidity of the characters, and establishes scenes and locations with aplomb. Matt Scott’s lighting design, prominent on the rig, is as close to perfect as you will see, deftly moving between the stark lighting of hospitals to the backlit shadow play of a Marxist revolution. Similarly, the sound design by Ash Gibson, and choreography and movement by Nerida Matthaei sit just as they should within the piece.

The acting, across the board, extends well beyond competence. The cast, drawn from across the age demographic, show outstanding commitment to their roles, and find surprisingly whole characters in sometimes limited lines. Adam Sollis and Emma Jackson bring energy and a wonderful presence to their ensemble work. Toni Scanlan and Kaye Stevenson add the full weight of their theatrical experience, particularly in their re-enactment of a ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ rehearsal scene. Penny Everingham’s portrayal of Will’s overbearing mother is instantly recognisable, and the realism she brings to the hospital bed is a perfect canvas on which the other actors can paint their performances. Adam Booth’s turn as an immigrant doctor takes in all the given circumstances, and Steve Turner inhabits whole worlds in each of his characters, even when he has no lines to work from. However, it is Klarwein that carries the lion’s share of the work as Will, and he does so with empathy and intelligence. It is not the kind of role that lends itself to rave reviews – it is no Stanley Kowalski or Fish Lamb – but it is work that requires connection, warmth and a lot of giving, all of which are delivered within Klarwein’s performance.

At the end of the day though, it is Gow’s writing that audiences are paying to see, and it is the writing that underpins this marvellous show. Gow shows off his trademark humour and insight, and although it is a long sit (an hour and forty-five minutes with no interval), not once did I feel the need to look at my watch. It is beautifully crafted, rich with heart and character, and unafraid to plunge right into the hard stuff. In one of the final moments of the performance, Will describes the problem with Brecht – that people misinterpret the work, and try to make sure the audience doesn’t feel anything (often referred to as ‘the alienation effect’). Gow suffers no such affliction. This is what epic theatre should be – theatre that makes you think, and laugh, and feel.

A Black Swan and Queensland Theatre co-production
Once In Royal David 's City
by Michael Gow

Director Sam Strong

Venue: The Heath Ledger Theatre
Dates: 29 March – 9 April 2017
Bookings: bsstc.com.au

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