The role of mothers takes centre stage in STC's summer production of Michael Gow's modern Australian classic
Humans have long looked to art to tell us who we are, and theatre can be a particularly potent medium for this kind of soul-searching. Watching a live performance that you can almost reach out and touch gets you up close and personal with a range of emotions, experiences, and opportunities for catharsis: through tears, laughter or even simple self-identification.
In Australia, many people have looked to Michael Gow’s Away for these kinds of insights. It’s one of the most popular local plays ever written, a constant on the Australian school syllabus and stages across the country. For its 30 year anniversary, Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre have teamed up to present a new production, helmed by Malthouse artistic director Matthew Lutton.
Gow’s play shows us an Australia that’s ill at ease with itself. Written in the 1980s and set in the late 1960s, it takes us on a sunny Christmas holiday that’s dark around the edges. Death, war and its ramifications, and xenophobia are always lurking, making their mark on three ordinary families.
Harry (Wadih Dona) and Vic (Julia Davis) fled England’s post-war rubble to start a new life in paradise, but their son Tom (Liam Nunan) is terminally ill, and will not have the future they had hoped to provide. Gwen (Heather Mitchell) had her own reaction to the financial hardship World War II: she is thrifty to a fault, following a rigid ‘no treats or surprises’ plan to keep her family – husband Jim (Marco Chiappi) and daughter Meg (Naomi Ruakvina) – afloat. Roy (Glenn Hazeldine) and Coral (Natasha Herbert), meanwhile, are dealing with the grim realities of a fresher war, grieving their son who has died in action in Vietnam.
The nexus of connection for these three families is the local high school: Meg and Tom are classmates and have just performed in the school play together; Roy is their headmaster. While these families are superficially quite different – Gwen is quick to point out the class differentials in their planned Christmas holidays, aghast at Harry and Vic’s lean-to but impressed by Roy and Coral’s Gold Coast resort – Gow draws them together during the summer, when an unexpected disaster brings them to the same patch of beach.
Gow bookended his script with scenes from two of Shakespeare’s plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear – and he employs Shakespearean devices within, from soliloquy to play-within-a-play; and there’s a massive storm, Shakespeare’s ultimate symbol for a shift in the fabric of the universe. It helps us to understand that these small worlds, just like ours, are about to change.
Lutton makes some bold staging choices: at the midpoint of the play, Dale Ferguson’s set transforms before our eyes from a low-rent and charming ‘forest’ (constructed out of timber and chains) to a more challenging, surreal space – undercutting the text’s easy naturalism.
The overwhelming impression, however, is of respect for the source: this production loves these characters, and truly invests in the story. Lutton doesn’t rush over daggy jokes or awkward outbursts of emotion – every feeling is important. Likewise, every exchange is given time and space to advance the story, and each actor charts a clear journey in their performance, growing or changing a little with every plot point.
The result is elegiac and wistful; a finely-drawn, empathetic study of regular people, regular suffering, and everyday survival.
The cast are excellent; a range of top-notch stage performers can generally breathe new life into plays that might seem tired, and in Lutton’s hands they elevate the well-worn text into something that feels fresh. Sydney newcomer and Melbourne regular Rukavina is a vibrant, frustrated Meg who is less brat than someone trying to feel her way through life, struggling against its confines to find an identity for herself. Glenn Hazeldine seems born to play the role of Roy – emotionally distant, but also comically fussy and a bit hapless.
Tom is almost always onstage: gently removed from the action, more ‘observer’ than participant, he seems to be slowly readying himself for his inevitable departure. Nunan is a marvel here, bringing surprising wisdom to the part as Tom masks sadness and fear with quick jokes and even quicker love, arranging his features into something less world-weary every time they approach him; he watches them closely and longingly throughout the play from his various perches.
It’s easy for productions of Away to paint Gwen as a controlling monster and Coral as “crazy”, but Lutton draws our attention to the fact that they are trying to survive in a difficult time for women, when the feminist movement has yet to take mainstream hold and where emotional labour is even more undervalued than it is now. Lutton gives time and the majority of the stage to their outbursts and ‘difficult’ behaviour, never allowing the disparaging or placating reactions of men to have any greater authority, space on stage, or lighting than the women. Mitchell and Herbert offer precise, absorbing performances of women who cannot pretend to be nice and malleable and good anymore; they are clearly in deep pain.
Consequently, Lutton taps into the healing aspect of the story, placing importance on the process of being vulnerable and honest before you can find peace: by means of lighting and sound cues (by designers Paul Jackson and J. David Franzke’s respectively) he directs audience attention to specific characters in certain exchanges, always with a view of promoting honesty and shared confession, urging his characters to clear the air.
He also weights the performances within certain exchanges to cherish grief and empathy: when Roy pleads and then yells at Coral to essentially get over their dead son, he’s the one who seems unreasonable – though never truly unsympathetic; and it’s Vic that inspires a change of heart in Gwen, one mother to another, because she can and will take the time to truly talk with her – something her husband actively avoids.
Given that Away is 30 years old, it’s particularly surprising when in the final moments of this production lines usually assigned to another character are given to Meg. The switch transforms the play’s final moments from a sad, neat nod to the play’s wider themes, into a grave, openly emotional coda. There was plenty of weeping in the audience as the curtain fell on opening night.
Lutton’s production is a tribute to – and perhaps also revelation of – the core strength of Gow’s play: that it doesn’t manipulate an audience into an emotional reaction. It just shows people who are trying their best to deal with hard times, and honours their complicated emotions. It’s hard not to relate to that.