Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Away review (Sydney Opera House, Sydney Theatre Company)

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Michael Gow’s Away seems to have entered Australia’s collective consciousness in a way that only a small handful of Australian plays have managed.

This bittersweet story of three families trying to find themselves on a scorching summer holiday has been revived time and again, and studied by at least two generations of Australian school children since its premiere in 1986.

Sydney saw a production of the play just last year from Sport for Jove, so the question for Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre’s new co-production is: what can be brought to the play that feels fresh, immediate and new?

Malthouse’s Artistic Director, and director of this production, Matthew Lutton has answered that question clearly with his inventive, tightly-wound, warm, passionate, and compassionate rendering.

The characters here are all drawn as vividly as they possibly could be, as they work to solve their problems in that typically Australian way: by getting away from those (by literally going “away”), and diving into something that should be joyful.

Despite all of Lutton’s innovations in the staging of this work (more on that soon) what leaps forward most obviously is the extraordinary clarity with which Lutton and his cast treat the text. There are lines I’ve heard several times before but ring with new resonance as Lutton seems to conduct his actors’ vocal performances, pulling them together like an orchestra.

I remember having the same thought three years ago, watching Lutton’s production of another great play from the Australian canon, Patrick White’s Night on Bald MountainLooking back on my review, I said that production would’ve been entirely satisfying as a radio play, and I feel similarly about this production of Away.

But the physical production is equally impressive, smartly told through high school student Tom’s (Liam Nunan) eyes. Tom, an aspiring actor who it’s revealed has terminal cancer, stands as a witness to all that unfolds on the stage; almost like this is his theatrical rendering of his own life.

Lutton digs deep into the play’s references to Shakespeare; its Shakespearean structure, and the way it moves from the light of the opening excerpt of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the gentle darkness of King Lear. He also pulls off a spectacular coup de theatre during the storm scene, transforming the stage and moving the characters from one world to the next.

It’s a bold and largely abstract staging, thanks to Dale Ferguson’s two opposing and imposing sets. Paul Jackson’s lighting design helps to redefine the space and focus the audience’s attention, while J. David Franzke’s sound design takes many sounds of the 60s, and pushes them through a contemporary dreamscape filter, to thrilling effect.

The entire company is strong, led by Nunan in a heart-breaking performance as Tom, which finds the full darkness and emotional weight of his situation. As his friend and crush Meg, Naomi Rukavina is similarly endearing, particularly as she struggles to deal with her extremely highly strung mother Gwen, played with extraordinary intensity and intelligence by Heather Mitchell.

Gwen is one of the three mothers in the play whose stories Lutton says inspired him to revisit the work. All three are losing a child in some way and dealing with that reality, and although Lutton hasn’t highlighted their stories in any explicit way, they come through with plenty of heart thanks to the women in these roles.

Natasha Herbert makes total sense of the rather difficult role of Coral, the principal’s wife dealing with ill mental health after the death of her son in Vietnam. Herbert finds a consistent emotional through-line, enhanced by Stephanie Lake’s whimsical ’60s ballroom choreography. And Julia Davis is full of an impossible light as Vic, the mother dealing with the impending death of her son Tom.

Lutton’s production really is a totally absorbing piece of theatre, but most importantly it reminds just how wonderful Gow’s text really is. The play is now more than three decades old, but the characters that populate it still feel like our families and friends as they love, laugh, and struggle through their limited time on this planet.

[box]Away is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 25. It then plays Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre from May 3.

Featured image by Prudence Upton[/box]

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