DO NOT GO GENTLE...
DO NOT GO GENTLE… Sydney Theatre Company at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 27 May-17 June 2023. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - John Gaden, Vanessa Downing, Brigid Zengeni, Philip Quast and Peter Carroll; below - Vanessa Downing, Marilyn Richardson, and Brigid Zengeni; below again - Josh McConville and John Gaden
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Antarctica is “the world’s highest, driest, windiest, coldest, and iciest continent”. It’s also 98% covered by ice and uninhabitable for humans. It feels very much like Australia’s aged care environment.
Unsurprising that Patricia Cornelius chose the place for her comedy-drama of life, death, love, loss, optimism and hopelessness, Do not go gentle… She is famously admired for her uncompromising, unsentimental yet humane and loving attitude to her characters and their plights, and this play – winner of the 2006 Patrick White Playwrights Award – is classic Cornelius.
Untouched by the mainstream possibly for the elements that have made her a legend in independent theatre, it’s thrilling that under the astute direction of long-time admirer Paige Rattray, Cornelius gets the production she deserves – with all STC’s resources behind it.
Do not go gentle… is a work of dazzling insight and – in this production – ravishing spectacle. Set in bleak, icy beauty and in the arid zone of old age in modern western society, it’s overflowing with imagination and resolute honesty. The exuberant Scott (Philip Quast) leads his polar expedition of 1910 toward triumph. Yet we know that disappointment lay ahead: he was not the first to reach the South Pole as Roald Amundsen had already arrived and built a taunting cairn of stones topped by the Norwegian flag.
In his previous mission of 1901, Scott was the first man to reach Latitude 82°S, hence it was a deep sense of failure, rather than scurvy and the cold, that finally did them in. Before this though, Scott is preceded into the barren internal and external landscapes by the breathtaking sight and sound of Maria (Marilyn Richardson). In what is arguably the Ros’s most thrilling opening scene in its 20 years, in sumptuous black ballgown and glittering jewels, the diva uplifts hearts throughout the theatre as she sings the haunting aria from Nabucco, “Va, pensiero…” “Go, thought, on golden wings…”
(Humans aren’t the only ones drawn to music: Amundsen’s expedition discovered that scurvy could be avoided by eating fresh penguin meat, and that penguins are easily enticed into catching distance if a crewman plays music to them!)
Not so amenable are Scott’s team. With British stiff upper lip in place he insists they harness up and pull the sledge together. Evans (Peter Carroll) complains sourly, “What are we? Oxen?… Fools are what we are… We’re bags of rattling bones!” While Oates (John Gaden) is as lugubriously unimpressed as Wilson (Vanessa Downing) is perpetually jolly hockey sticks, and Bowers (Brigid Zengeni), is stunned mullet disbelieving.
In the persons of this rare group of senior actors, each character is clearly delineated and brought to life as an everyday denizen of a twilight home, as well as a more – or less – intrepid expeditioneer. Laughter abounds even as they plod further into the wasteland towards death and bingo. They are at once daunting, immensely touching and laugh-out-loud hilarious.
The title of the play – the partial first line of Dylan Thomas’s poem that ends “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” – counsels us on how to live and how to die. And Do not go gentle… does even more. Through the privations, the hardships, the adventures and the blizzards of the mind, each person is a defiant reminder of the fragility and passion of life; and why we should seize every moment.
Kathmandu, Patagonia and wicking fabrics were decades in the future in the 1900s, and set and costume designer Charles Davis has worked wonders on the stinky-looking clumsiness of early explorer-wear. This includes droll sleeping bags as each member of the group copes or does not, more or less, with social niceties and the more profound fate ahead.
All except the elusive Man Beast (Josh McConville), that is. His fleeting shaggy-headed, bare-chested, barefoot appearances are apparition and fear in Oates’s mind. And later, as Alex, he’s a Vietnam-dead son, greeting his bewildered father at Heaven’s door. His meaning and performance are electrifying and heartrending by turn. The same must be said for the entire company. Under Paul Jackson’s virtuosic lighting schemes and James Brown’s composition and sound design, which range from terrifying to ethereal, Do not go gentle… is an enchanting guide to life and death and the glorious bits in between. Do not go gentle… is thrilling. Recommended without reservation.