Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company’s co-production of ‘Away’ explores the shadows of Gow’s sunny and much-loved text
Away, still the best of Michael Gow’s plays, holds a unique position in the canon of Australian drama. Many people first encounter it at school, which perhaps accounts for some of the nostalgia that surrounds it. But it’s also the play: Away is an essay in nostalgia itself, playing the music of loss in a minor key.
It’s easy to see why it’s so popular. Away plucks a lot of sentimental chords: the (white) Australian family beach holiday, antipodean Christmas celebrations, families in different kinds of trouble, the worldly innocence of adolescence. Even now it’s not very common to see ordinary suburban rituals on Australian stages. Gow’s winning stroke was to imbue these rituals with the magic of Shakespeare, in particular A Midsummer Night’s Dream, heightening the apparently trivial with an aura of enchantment.
Away has had countless revivals since it was first produced by Griffin Theatre in 1986. I last saw it in Neil Armfield’s 1990 production, also at the Malthouse: a lyrical interpretation, drenched in the colours of sand and summer skies, that featured a luminous performance by Julia Blake. Matthew Lutton’s robust take, now on at the Malthouse Theatre (until 28 May), couldn’t be more different.
Lutton’s production squares up to the nostalgia of Gow’s text and gives it a right going over. It’s signalled from the beginning, which in Gow’s text is the end of a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lutton gives us a mute précis that, instead of sparkly fairies, offers a glimpse of darker, more ancient magic: animal skulls, wings made of antlers. This glimpse of the uncanny is immediately undercut by a speech from the headmaster, Roy (Glenn Hazeldine), reminding the audience not to trample the school flowerbeds.
For the rest of the play, Gow’s writing swings between comic moments of recognition and lyric intensity, each driving the other on. My memory of Armfield’s 1990 production is partial but vivid: he’s a director sensitive to currents of feeling, and he generated an emotional texture that held the play together and persisted long after the show. Lutton’s approach is, on the other hand, often brutal and discordant, attempting to excavate the play’s subtextual darkness.
The effect is one of imbalance. It’s quite peculiar to watch a production in which you can clearly see the reasons for every aesthetic decision, and simultaneously feel that they are intellectually sound and emotionally tone deaf. One of the problems is in the play itself: if you strip the sentiment from Gow’s text, it begins to look a little dramaturgically threadbare and even dated. The issues of war and immigration are present, to be sure, but in 2017 they are a little grating.
Another problem is that the emotional delicacies that do exist in Gow’s script often feel trampled. Unlike Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain, which Lutton directed for Malthouse in 2014, the text can’t withstand this kind of treatment.
Away is, as Gow himself says, a “sunny, restorative play” with shadows around its edges. At first glance, exploring those shadows – madness, loss, grief, war, loneliness – makes sense as a way to revitalise a much-loved text. The problem is that the reconciliations Away offers are merely magical thinking: to take the shadows seriously, as Lutton does here, is to expose the limitations of the text. Gow’s play is indeed a sunny thing, a comfort piece that leaves its audience glowing, but it doesn’t have the intellectual or emotional heft to carry these darker notes.
David Franzke’s sound design and score are jarring, in line with the directorial vision. All the actors are miked, which drives a declamatory mode that flattens out the naturalistic elements of the dialogue, and so dimensions of subtlety and feeling are lost. Sometimes it’s because the feeling isn’t there in the dialogue itself and is fudged by the extraneous prompting of emotional resonance (Shakespeare, the plot about a dying boy). Sometimes it’s because it is there, and just doesn’t register in the performances.
This lack tells most in the encounters between the two young people Tom (Liam Nunan) and Meg (Naomi Rukavina), especially in the scene where Tom asks Meg for sex, which seems now an almost entirely misjudged scene thick with the threat of rape: neither disarmingly awkward, as I think it is meant to be, nor especially truthful about young people. It prompts you to wonder where all the romance promised in their introductory scene has gone, and to realise that it actually isn’t followed through at all, in either character.
There are moments when you perceive the possibilities of Lutton’s approach: for example, a beautiful speech at the beginning of the play from Coral (Natasha Herbert), the headmaster’s unstable wife, gains an extra resonance. Herbert’s brilliantly brittle performance is punctuated by disturbing dance routines that reprise the opening images of the production and that powerfully express the dislocations of her emotional state. Likewise, Heather Mitchell’s Gwen is a neurotic, wounded bully, a portrayal heightened by Marco Chiappi’s sympathetic performance of her husband, Jim. But where in a gentler performance this behaviour is leavened by comedy, here it is simply what it is, vicious joylessness.
These interpretative decisions force us to consider the discomforting realities of what is being represented, and the more successful they are, the more false their ultimate resolutions become. I didn’t believe Gwen’s epiphany of understanding for a moment: narcissistic bullies simply don’t do that. Coral’s translation into an artist seems merely trite wishful thinking. And the thought of a couple offering up their son’s death as a “gift” to make other people feel better about their lives struck me as faintly obscene.
Dale Ferguson’s design is spectacular, lit with the appropriate shadows by Paul Jackson. After the cleansing tempest that whirls all the characters to a magical place of reconciliation, it features a coup de theatre that is hugely impressive but that, again, doesn’t make a lot of emotional sense. But that’s in line with the play itself, I think. It could be that all these decades later I’m older and sadder than when I first saw Away. But I suspect that without the numinous glow of nostalgia the play’s shortcomings become all too clear.