Reviews, Stage, Theatre

The Golden Age review (The Wharf Theatre, Sydney)

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There can be no doubt that Louis Nowra’s 1985 epic The Golden Age is one of Australia’s great plays. Like many of the greats, it takes a vast, sprawling landscape of truth, and social and cultural gravity, and zooms in to focus on a handful of characters and the difficult realities of their lives.
The play is based on a story Nowra was once told which may or may not be true — Nowra is unsure.
Two young men were exploring the South-West Tasmanian wilderness shortly before World War II and came across a small group of people who had become lost from society during the Gold Rush, but developed their own social structure and language (based on various forms of English). The two men took the people back to Hobart, but Australia was on the verge of war, the authorities determined it better to keep the story out of the press and sent them to the New Norfolk Asylum.
Several members of the group were in ill-health and most suffered from some form of genetic disorder, given that they were a largely inbred tribe. It was believed that if this story fell into the hands of the Nazis, they could use it to confirm their theories about racial degeneration.
In Nowra’s play, a deep love develops between one of the explorers Francis (Brandon McClelland) and one of the young women of the tribe Betsheb (Rarriwuy Hick), and it’s through their eyes that we see how a dominant culture can destroy another.
It’s been almost three decades since this play has been seen in Sydney, and it’s quite an undertaking to stage with a big cast of characters, and settings from European battle grounds, to Hobart estates, to the untamed Tasmanian forests.
Kip Williams has directed a production which starts off rather static and builds to a heart-stopping crescendo over its nearly three-hour running time. The play takes place across both man-made and natural landscapes, and this is a production that uses the elements of earth, fire and water for surprisingly organic storytelling.
There’s something initially quite sterile about David Fleischer’s set — an almighty mound of soil atop a white surface, surrounded by walls painted half-white. But as the performance goes on the performers degrade the soil, dragging it around the stage, giving a full sense of the life in each of these characters. Damien Cooper’s lighting has a similar effect: between scenes, he often illuminates the space corner by corner — the theatrical equivalent of a wipe cut.
As Betsheb, the younger woman in the tribe desperate to carry on their culture, Rarriwuy Hick is full of terror, passion and curiosity. It’s a complex role and she succeeds in finding every nuance, along with the added challenge of working entirely in the language invented by Nowra.
Sarah Peirse also works in that language as Ayre, the matriarch of the tribe. Every time Peirse steps onto any stage she seems to reveal a new aspect of her dramatic talents, and this performance is no exception — her Ayre is proud, motherly and full of extraordinary dignity.
(And praise has to go to voice and text coach Charmian Gradwell for helping Peirse and Hick find those almost otherworldly voices.)
In voice and mannerisms, Brandon McClelland’s Francis is everything you expect an upper-class Australian soldier from the early 1940s to be. It’s a fine performance and technically sound, but there’s something oddly distancing about this approach, especially when the other actors on stage are delivering something earthier, like Remy Hii as Francis’s good friend Peter.
Ursula Yovich also makes an excellent impression as the aristocratic Elizabeth Archer, while Liam Nunan turns in a very strong physical performance in his STC debut. And then there’s Robert Menzies, who excels as both the wild, old tribesman Melorne and the Doctor William Archer, who becomes obsessed with this lost tribe.
This really is a stunning production, absolutely worthy of this stunning piece of writing.
If there’s one fault in the script, and this is a very slight one indeed, it’s that the initial justification for keeping the tribe quiet — for fear that Nazis could use the story to justify their social beliefs — isn’t explained as clearly as it should be.
But if there’s a play that speaks more directly to Australia’s difficult sense of national identity (in an a somewhat allegorical sense), I’ve not read or seen it. From our imperialistic, colonial past, to our chequered relationship with immigrants and multiculturalism, right up to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s claims just last month about our “superior culture“, this is a play that I fear will be relevant to Australian audiences for a long time to come.
[box]The Golden Age is at Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney until February 20. Featured image by Lisa Tomasetti[/box]

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