Away (heartBeast Theatre)
Trinity Hall, Fortitude Valley
February 12 – March 7
Typically, classic plays can be challenging to stage. Audience members are likely to know at least something about the story, if not have intimate familiarity. Hence, you need to find ways for viewers to reconsider its meaning. Michael Gow’s 1986 work “Away” certainly falls into this category; Gow is one of those few playwrights whose work is repeatedly favoured by theatre companies staging Australian drama, for despite its late 1960s setting, its thematic examination of key aspects of the Australian psyche including mateship and the underdog, make it somewhat universal.
The story is one of sun, sand and sacrifice as it follows the struggles of three families against a backdrop of a traditional Christmas holidays beach break holiday to a non-specific destination ‘up the coast’. But all is not as it seems behind the veneers of their varied lives, with seasonal smiles masking many personal tragedies. Immigrants Harry (Brian Bolton) and Vic (Sherri Smith) are faced with their adolescent son Tom’s illness. Meanwhile, teenage Meg’s friendship with the socially unsuitable Tom is of concern to her henpecked father Jim (David Paterson) and overbearing mother (overplayed by Jacqueline Kerr). And a grief-stricken Coral (Adrienne Costello) recalls the days when husband Roy (Warwick Comber) would compare her to Hollywood starlet Kim Novak. But over their time away, the families are reconciled to face the future anew.
“Away” is well known for time appropriate language, settings and relationships. And in the case of heartBeast’s production, this is realised not just through maintenance of its cultural references (products like the housewife’s drug of choice, Bex power and personalities like the iconic Australian actor Chips Rafferty), but through a wardrobe of costume choices that effectively recapture this hippie period of utopian optimism. Unfortunately, this realism is juxtaposed with some laborious comic relief scenes and the interpretive dance, frenzied representation of a tempest of a storm whipped up by havoc-wreaking fairies.
It is no coincidence that the storm is pivotal to the action of the play, as in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. “Away” has clear and plentiful intertextual links with Shakespearean drama. The play begins with the final scene of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the play performed at the end of the school year and concludes with the start of “King Lear”, as further evidence of its focus of the eternal nature of journeys. There is also use of character disguise and the inclusion of ‘The Stranger on the Shore’ an allegorical, beautifully staged, play within a play during which Tom shows Coral a way to overcome her grief for her son, lost to the Vietnam war.
As Coral’s husband, school Principal Roy, Comber has a natural stage presence that not only anchors the action, but also highlights the deficiencies of others of lesser experience. But it is Tim’s immigrant parents, played by Harry and Smith, who provide the standout performances, not only maintaining authentic English accents throughout, but conveying content satisfaction in their philosophy of neither looking forward nor back. The problem is the doubling of characters amongst the actors in order bring an ambitious work such as this to life. As Tom, heartBeast newcomer Patrick Bell is engaging in his teenager flirtation with Meg (Johancee Theron), full, as it is, of coy interactions and sideways glances. Yet, as newlywed Rick, with whom the grieving Carol forms an attachment, he appears completely miscast and unimportant to the action.
It is easy to understand why heartBeast has chosen “Away” as its first work of 2015. Since it was first performed on stage in 1986, the play has engaged audiences with its coming of age story, as both individuals and a nation. And its themes are as relevant as ever with its comments on reconciliation and loss. These alone are enough to drive the narrative. To tone down the naturalism and emphasise the play’s over-the-top, dated comic scenes, serves only to labour the point of an already lengthy show.
Michael Gow is one of this country’s most significant playwrights. His often colloquial dialogue and vivid character constructions allow audience members to emphasise with and relate to characters. Indeed, its themes of generation gap differences and class distinctions show similarity with other works of our country’s cannon, such as Alan Seymour’s “The One Day of the Year” and maybe it is this alone, that makes “Away” a worthwhile venture, for as its “Twelfth Night” epigraph asks, ‘what country, friends, is this?
*A review of this show also appears on the XS Entertainment website.