ON THE BEACH
ON THE BEACH, Sydney Theatre Company at the Rosalind Packer Theatre, 22 July-12 August 2023. Photography by Daniel Boud
To make sense of Nevil Shute’s grim vision of the world in 1957 when he wrote On The Beach, it helps to imagine what might have been on the mind of the recent immigrant to Frankston, Victoria. He couldn’t have been further removed from post-war Britain, yet had inevitably brought with him still-painful memories of six years of world war. And, through the main means of communication – the wireless and “This is the BBC World Service, here is the news…” – he would have been aware of the existential hostilities between East and West (the Cold War) and its proxy conflicts, such as the bloody Hungarian Uprising (against Russian hegemony); as well as the Suez Crisis when Egypt seized the waterway from the outraged Brits and French.
More important than Imperialist apoplexy, the closure of the Canal yet again isolated Australia, only just recovering trade-wise and mentally from WW2. (This when a letter to or from the Old Country took six weeks anyway, while a phone call was an unimaginable and unreliable luxury.)
To Shute, then, as the US and Britain “tested” the first of 33 nuclear weapons on a Kiribati atoll – and foreseeing fresh war in the northern hemisphere – filtering the end of the world through a drifting cloud of radiation must have seemed logical. So to Melbourne, on a sunny day, its citizens going about daily life hoping the toxic miasma would either not cross the Equator, or dissipate. Just keeping on, they pay polite attention when the Prime Minister gives advice or instructions. Shute’s characters, brought to life in Tommy Murphy’s adaptation, yet possibly numb with disbelief, straddle the spectrum of behaviours from teary to tippling.
Whether its a merrily sodden local lovely (Contessa Treffone), or ruggedly stoic US submarine captain (Tai Hara), or his dutiful Aussie liaison officer (Ben O’Toole) and his wife (Michelle Lim Davidson); or even the local dairyman (Tony Cogin) or telephone operator (Vanessa Downing), or eccentric CSIRO chappy (Matthew Backer), there is an absence of high emotion that possibly signifies the times, which actively discouraged excessive display; or Shute’s own refusal (inability?) of unseemly passions even when writing what to most readers was a romance. (Viz. A Town Like Alice for repressed ardour.)
In its story-telling, On The Beach is at once faithful to the book although stripped back to essentials and, through the fabulous creative team led by director Kip Williams, faithful to theatre and its very different demands.
The play opens on a classic Aussie beach tableau with a jetty and vast expanses of pure light (set design: Michael Hankin, lighting: Damien Cooper). However, “on the beach” also means “no longer in service” in Naval terms and that’s really where all are at, whether submariners or civilians, as the city and what’s left of the country grinds towards the end. There is no petrol, there are no imports, there is no point. Unless, of course, underneath it all disbelief remains alight – a tiny flame in the darkness of foreboding – fanned by a radio signal from across the Pacific.
Although it sounds grim, particularly as we watch Ukraine on TV and listen to bellicose men around the world, there is something immensely appealing about these ordinary people and their ordinary humanity. Costumed by Mel Page to remind us that Elvis had just bought Graceland, the Cavern Club was about to open in Liverpool, and young people were about to be dubbed “teenagers” and were jiving and soon to learn The Twist, On The Beach is drenched in period style and mores. (Although the high-five hadn’t happened yet; men shook hands to express extreme joy.)
The 140 minutes, including interval, move from narratively absorbing (but too long, it needs snips) to a final scene that’s immensely touching. The ensemble cast was uneven, on opening night, yet buoyed by Contessa Treffone’s confidence, focus and sass. Most affecting was the soundtrack (composer Grace Ferguson, sound design Jessica Dunn). It could be released as an album and is wickedly manipulative, especially when it comes to The Tree. Puzzled? Go see it.