The Torrents is not, in fact, a play about the battle faced by content creators against illegal downloaders. Stand down, tech-heads.
It is, though, a play that speaks forcibly to the current moment. Unabashedly, somewhat gracelessly, so, if through a prism of a particular slice of 19th century pioneer Australiana.
Its star is obvious from the moment audiences enter the Drama Theatre bunker underneath the Opera House, her name spelt out in pink neon against the red velvet curtain – Oriel Gray. Though few will recognise the name.
As the actor-comedian Celia Pacquola explains during a pre-show “prologue” (which is more seemingly spontaneous stand-up act), Gray wrote The Torrents as a fledgling playwright in 1955, entering it in the prestigious Playwrights’ Advisory Board Competition. It won, sharing the honour with Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
Summer, now a cultural touchstone, was an immediate entry into the canon and has been regularly revived ever since. The Torrents was put on stage precisely twice – in 1958 (Sydney) and 1996 (Adelaide).
And so what the Sydney Theatre Company, in a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan, presents here is a celebration of Gray. Her name, finally, up in hot pink lights, set to a soundtrack of modern girl-power pop.
But more than that, with Pacquola’s indignant pre-show set, and a punched-up script (the marvellous actress Virginia Gay acts as dramaturg) that highlights the sexism in the setting, The Torrents rages against the unfairness of how the culture shut out this play and this woman, crushing her career while letting less talented men propser. It forces us to consider the voices we never heard, and may never hear, on the long road to a more equal society.
That is, indeed, a worthy endeavour on its own. Even if as a piece of theatre in 2019 it’s neither as sharp or as funny as this production endeavours to be.
The story is stuffed with remarkable pertinency and prescience. The female journalist (Pacquola, with reserves of charm but too reserved in parts) cracking the ink-smudged glass ceiling of a newspaper in a parade of prejudice. The paper’s owner (Tony Cogin) balancing editorial independence with the demands of commercial interest and his biggest investor. The miner (a blustery Steve Rodgers) who realises the finiteness of a business that built the town. The engineer (Luke Carroll) who can see a more sustainable, even more lucrative use of land if only the town would listen to reason and the paper would print it. The young woman (a sweetly awakening Emily Rose Brennan) marrying a man who doesn’t love her because marriage is all she has. A spoiled son (Gareth Davies, with his patented man-child patheticness) trying to find himself outside his father’s shadow.
Sexism and the patriarchy. The bounds of marriage. Media commodification. Press freedom. Fake news. Succession planning. Mining. Environmental conservation. The subversion of science. Climate change. Socioeconomic shifts. It’s all there.
And it’s all underlined. And telegraphed. And largely predictable.
And that wouldn’t be so bad if the acting had a little more spark and the scenes a little more rhythm. Under director Clare Watson, Black Swan’s artistic boss, despite previews and a two-week run in Perth, it still lacks some crackle and pop. The production design is certainly handsome, with the two-storey newsroom set (Renée Mulder) servicing the drama well. The stage is piled high in bundles of newspapers, to hint perhaps at the powderkeg possible.
None of this is to say Gray’s play doesn’t deserve its moment. It’s construction is quite masterly. And the wordplay is very skilled. But when female empowerment and environmental emergency and the fast-shifting means of communication are at the tachycardia-afflicted heart of public consciousness this production somehow douses Gray’s radical agenda.
But then, putting it on is, sadly, still a radical idea in itself.
The Torrents plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 24
Image: Luke Carroll, Celia Pacquola and Tony Cogin in Sydney Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company’s The Torrents, 2019. Photo ©Philip Gostelow