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A Compelling New Production of Michael Gow’s AWAY at Theatre Works

Away at Theatre Works is both moving and, at times, muddled. The play’s fractured final sequence moves rapidly from holiday destination to Meg’s classroom for the new school year, forfeiting some narrative conclusions. However, Stephen Tall’s powerful operatic voice and a striking tableau provide a strong culmination, vindicating this poignant production.

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Away is already in motion as the audience files into the seating banks at Theatre Works. A painted blue ensemble play out the final scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream before a chatty opening night crowd: we are already “away” with the fairies. Steven Michell Wright directs this adaptation of Michael Gow’s iconic narrative, which follows three small families as they head to the Queensland coast in the summer of 1967/68. Wright seizes on the tensions of distance and proximity, home and away, that are rife within Gow’s script to expound intergenerational personal and political conflicts that reverberate into the present day. As the families travel further from home, the fraught cores of their familial units clarify.

A play in five acts, Away opens with Tom (Rupert Bevan) as Puck, uttering the famous concluding line of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “If we shadows have offended…”. It closes with the opening lines of King Lear. Framing a distinctly Australian narrative, these Shakespearean citations ambitiously elevate Away to heights of English literature’s greatest dramatist. And, indeed, successfully–Gow’s play is taught alongside William Shakespeare on high school syllabi around the country and is familiar to several generations. In this production, Wright combines the comedic and tragic elements of Away with great care. Comedy lies in costuming and gesture as teen protagonists Tom and Meg (Cait Spiker) wear the frilled collars from their end-of-year play to the tropical northern beaches. Coral (Linda Jackson), the suffering wife of headmaster Roy, wanders beneath the low-hanging moon in movie star sunglasses; Meg’s painful mother Gwen (Eleanor Howlett) sports a shocking red Marie Antoinette pouf hairstyle. Where characters’ tragic circumstances risk tipping into comic absurdity, their actions are empathetically framed as dignified human responses to love and loss.

Sandy beaches and leafy palm trees ironically juxtapose the socio-political backdrop of Away–the Vietnam War, a distant but conspicuous context behind the three families’ inter-state holiday. The tensions of Here versus There are epitomised by the repeated rhetoric that Australians must “pay for” their rising affluence and standard of living by sacrificing young men to the war effort. This is a particularly American rationale propagated by Roy and interpellated by Coral as they attempt to come to terms with the loss of their son in Vietnam. For younger members of the audience, the historical element of Away is enlightening. Linda Cookson and Stephen Tall create a moving and terrifying dynamic that attests to the immense power held by husbands over their wives in the mid-twentieth century, where a husband’s word and doctor’s signature could see hystericised women locked away. Cookson brilliantly unfolds Coral’s enigmatic persona to reveal desperation, grief and yearning as she searches for connection with her son in the young people she meets on holiday. Bevan shines in the ‘70s rock-star hair and tight jeans of his secondary role as newlywed Rick, who experiences an unexpected sexual-maternal connection with Coral while on his honeymoon. He also impressively holds the audience’s attention in the lead role of teenage Tom, whose endless positivity for his British migrant parents despite personal struggles is endearing. Some aspect of this character, however, such as his nascent romance with Meg, fall foul to over-acting–a common challenge for adult actors portraying children.

The 2017 co-production of Away by the Malthouse and Sydney Theatre Company received mixed reviews: a glowing four-and-a-half stars from Cameron Woodhead to a scathing two-star write-up for the Australian Book Review. It suggests this is a hard play to get right, particularly given the national affection for Gow’s narrative and characters. Wright’s production presents the play’s enduring relevance without hitting us over the head with it. Issues of class, migration, local and global politics are displayed in their ‘60s context, entrusting the audience with the responsibility to identify its resounding themes today. Indeed, the opening and closing moments of the performance refer directly to the seating banks as audience, transforming the crowd from passive to active participants in the narrative.

Away at Theatre Works is both moving and, at times, muddled. The play’s fractured final sequence moves rapidly from holiday destination to Meg’s classroom for the new school year, forfeiting some narrative conclusions. However, Stephen Tall’s powerful operatic voice and a striking tableau provide a strong culmination, vindicating this poignant production. 

You can see Away at Theatre Works in St Kilda until the 22nd of July.

 

Credits

Written by - Michael Gow
Directed by - Steven Mitchell Wright
Lighting design - Ben Hughes
Set and costume - Greg Carroll
Composition and sound - Rachel Lewindon

Stage manager - Brigette Jennings

 

Cast

Linda Cookson - Coral

Stephen Tall - Roy

Rupert Bevan - Tom

Iopu Auva'a - Harry

Stefanie Falasca - Vic

Cait Spiker - Meg

Justin Hosking - Jim

Eleanor Howlett – Gwen

With a chorus of early-career actors from CollArts.

 
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