ALL MY SLEEP AND WAKING
ALL MY SLEEP AND WAKING, Apocalypse Theatre Company at the Old 505 Theatre, 30 November- 22 December 2018. Photography by Robert Catto: above - Angela Bauer; below - Richard Sydenham; below again - Di Adams and Alex Beauman
Mary Rachel Brown’s first play All My Sleep And Waking was staged in Sydney in 2002 to a positive response. Like almost all Australian plays, however, it vanished into the black hole labeled “done that, what’s next?” from which most never re-emerge. Happily, producer-director Dino Dimitriadis decided otherwise.
The play has now been updated and somewhat rewritten from its original 55 minutes by an older, wiser and more experienced playwright. The result is an absorbing, thought-provoking and shockingly funny 75 minutes of darkest black comedy.
The play is beautifully staged in the Old 505 space on a raised rectangular platform edged in blue-white neon. The significance of this element becomes clear late in the piece but meanwhile, when illuminated or not makes for a clearly delineated “room” and indication of scene breaks.
In essence, 72-year-old Jonathan Edward Jenkins is dying, offstage and never seen, although his omnipresence is made obvious and loudly by a buzzer. It summons his youngest daughter Maria (Angela Bauer) who’s been his sole carer since the onset of cancer four years previously.
We quickly learn that Maria is his sole carer because he’s been a dreadful human being and worse father for most of his life. His eldest daughter Anne (Di Adams) and son Peter (Richard Sydenham) are a daily presence but only under sufferance. Anne’s simmering resentment and profound distress bubble over in caustic exchanges with her siblings and resolute refusal to enter her father’s room or go anywhere near forgiveness.
At the heart of the siblings’ story is that familiar yet rarely acknowledged truth that each has experienced a different father and is reacting accordingly. As the eldest, Anne bore the brunt of his violent, alcoholic behaviour and is bitterly angry about her blighted childhood. Peter grew up in the middle and in the shadows and consequently is a dithering, list-making wreck. And as the youngest, Maria experienced the dry but emotionally paralysed man who is now seeking redemption in the next room.
Watching this mess of humanity is Anne’s teenage son Josh (Alex Beauman). He is startlingly normal and the unlikely calm centre of the emotional storm that rages around him. Back home he has two goldfish, Cathy and Heathcliff, who – he says when asked by Peter – swim in circles and are not dramatic in any way.
Brown’s characters are richly detailed and finely drawn. Their father is dying but not yet dead, nevertheless, Anne’s response is to organise, clean, pack and generally get on with it. Peter goes to Toastmasters in preparation for delivering the eulogy. Maria gets stuck into the red wine while dutifully trying to engineer reconciliation between them all. And young Josh watches and wonders about absent fathers from his own preternaturally mature standpoint.
There is a very good reason why gallows humour exists and the laughter that frequently ripples around the audience is both startling and credibly sourced: Brown knows her family politics and social nuances inside out. As director, Dimitriadis brings out the light and shade as well as the pathos and pain of all four characters – five, really, as the dying man’s dilemma is very much part of the action.
Ben Pierpoint’s sound design punctuates and accentuates by turn, along with the lighting design by Alexander Berlage on a set by Maya Keys that represents the ill-lit and dreary lounge room of the family home. It’s a spectacle of beige carpet and uncared for paintwork, an awful painting placed too high on the wall, an equally unappealing plant arrangement; a sideboard for the plonk and a sofa – enough to deflate the jolliest among us.
Nevertheless, the verve and wit of the script, together with four sharply differentiated and uniformly excellent performances makes All My Sleep And Waking a night to remember. While not exactly handing out love and redemption by the bucketful, Peter’s halting attempt at the eulogy is deeply moving when he says of his sorely bruised little family, “It's the living that is important...life is very remarkable, death is very unremarkable.” Recommended without reservation.