AWAY, Sydney Theatre Company & Malthouse Theatre at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 23 February-25 March, Malthouse Melbourne, 3-28 May 2017. Photography by Prudence Upton
Written thirty-something years ago, Michael Gow’s Away was set twenty years before that and, aside from references to Bex powders (the housewives’ drug of choice at the time) it’s as pertinent today as it was a half century ago. And in Matthew Lutton’s new production, it’s still illuminating and relevant, sad, funny and beautiful. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
For Gow, Away was a memory play – of a childhood where idyllic summer holidays were shadowed from afar by a puzzling fear that was the Vietnam war. And, from his later viewpoint as a young man, an even more inexplicable phenomenon: a society that changed little in decades thanks to the stultifying aspic of Menzies. The effects of the war lottery and social suffocation are the over-arching themes that surround the very personal, small, human stories of Away.
The play opens at the climax of the high school year – the big play. In this instance it’s A Midsummer Night's Dream in which young Tom (Liam Nunan) has starred as Puck. The fragment we see – choreographed by Stephanie Lake – has the look of medieval Mummers as well as hilariously stilted Swinging 60s dancing, the combination making an oddly creepy spectacle.
Afterwards, headmaster Roy (Glenn Hazeldine) clod-hops blithely all over the kids’ aspirations in his end-of-term speech and later does the same to his wife Coral (Natasha Herbert). Her grief at the recent death of their conscript son is unending and she is clearly experiencing the then prevalent women’s complaint of a “nervous breakdown”.
As the families prepare to leave for their Christmas-summer jaunts, class and snobbery become apparent through Tom’s classmate and crush Meg (Naomi Rukavina). While Tom’s parents Harry and Vic (Wadih Donah and Julia Davis) are full of Pommy wonder at the prospect of the beach and Christmas in summer in their old car with a lean-to tent, Meg’s mother Gwen (Heather Mitchell) is appalled. Their merry poverty somehow casts a pall over her own brand new caravan and ferocious ambitions; and it’s made worse by the absence of similar yearnings in her own husband, Jim (Marco Chiappi).
All are heading north from suburban Sydney – Harry, Vic and Tom in a happy-go-lucky quest for a nice camping spot, Gwen, Jim and Meg to their regular booking of a prime spot in a well run caravan park. And Roy is flying Coral to a Gold Coast resort in the desperate hope that she will “snap out of it” and not force him into drastic mental health action.
As befits Tom’s ambition to become an actor as well as an Australian play of the late 80s which is an almost permanent fixture on school curricula, Shakespearean references abound and The Tempest is the catalyst for change in more ways than one. Each family has a tragedy which is more or less hidden from public gaze until a storm – physical, emotional or both – uncovers it.
Gwen’s raging bitterness is encapsulated in Jim’s gentle apologia, “She’s not really xxxxxx angry xxxxx hope,” while Coral and Roy’s hard-won and fragile redemption comes from even more unlikely circumstances; and young Tom’s leukaemia is in remission, but will he live to be a proper little Olivier?
The performances range from excellent to heart-rending and director Matthew Lutton maintains the delicate balance between laughter and tears and steers well away from bathos or caricature. Both Heather Mitchell and Natasha Herbert are piteous and marvellous in very different ways.
Natasha Herbert’s Coral is at first helpless in her unbearable maternal loss, then disconcerting when it turns to precariously loopy calm. She is riveting and distressing by turn and always mesmerising to watch.
Heather Mitchell’s Gwen is so brittle it seems she might crack and shatter at any moment. She is, on the surface, a dreadful woman, snipping off her sentences like scissors, her demeanour all too familiar to those whose mothers/wives knew the life- and expectation-cheating disappointment of the post-war era. It’s impossible not to laugh but it’s painful too.
Glenn Hazeldine and Marco Chiappi are awkwardly, tenderly, foolishly funny as the dunderheaded but well-meaning hubbies and good blokes. Hazeldine’s headmasterly pomp and circumstance is comically maintained in public but his fear, exasperation and vulnerability in the face of Coral’s calamitous disintegration is audible in his vocal panic. Marco Chiappi is gently and deceptively passive in his acceptance of Gwen’s fury and incandescent frustration at him and their lot. In the essential supporting roles of Tom’s determinedly jolly but eternally watchful parents, Wadih Donah and Julia Davis are forlornly exuberant – as sad as only cheery souls can be.
And what of the two youngsters? Tom and Meg are off to the beach with their olds in the same month the PM dived into the sea and drowned, to be followed in monotonous succession by McEwen, Gorton and McMahon. Yet Meg is already jacking up at her father’s quiescence and her mother’s prehistoric attitudes.
Neither she nor Tom belong in this smothering time capsule of political and social inertia: “It’s time!” and Gough are only four years in their future. And although as he watches from the sidelines Tom could be mistaken for a ghost, it’s clear that he and Meg will soon be gone: to uni, to lives of metamorphosis and promise. Both young actors, Liam Nunan and Naomi Rukavina, manage the tightrope walk between portraying childhood and young adult with intelligence and sensitivity.
Away runs for an hour and forty minutes without interval and is intense and funny by turn. Played on an unlikely set by Dale Ferguson, lit by Paul Jackson (not a palm tree nor beach motif in sight), it’s all angles and shadows, abstract and therefore extremely focused on the small humans in and on it. The potency is heightened by J David Franzke’s sound design which filters and mingles chatter, laughter, contemporary pop tunes, Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music, birdsong and other fragments of summer, fun and holidays into a much darker atmospheric mix.
This new production is dynamic and fresh despite the grimly authentic duds for which many Polyesters and Bri-Nylons died. (Like so much else in the former colony, fashion was slow to catch up and Carnaby Street had yet to reach outer suburban Sydney even though the Beatles played Rushcutters Bay in 1964.) Away is about loss, love and change at a time when these words hardly dared speak their names. It’s a rich play that deserves its classic status and has as much to offer now as it ever did. Recommended.