The word ‘classic’ is often used to describe texts that have stood the test of time. Shakespeare is probably the reigning definitive of the term, but Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller and others of their ilk spring to mind. It’s rare to find an Australian playwright’s name on that list, but Michael Gow’s Away is a true classic that continues to endure – and with good reason.
First performed by Griffin Theatre Company in 1986, Sydney Theatre Company’s 30 year anniversary co-production with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre beats anew with a strong Australian heart.
Away draws us into the lives of three different Australian families during the summer of 1968, a year in which Australia was reeling from the social and political ramifications of the Vietnam War and decades of economic hardship following the Second World War. As the country tries to come to terms with its identity in the wake of tragedy, so too are these characters trying to find themselves amidst their own personal tragedies. The play sets forth unravelling these characters, their insecurities and vulnerabilities on full display; they, like the nation, are striving to find their place in the world, all the while dealing with their own islands of grief.
Our protagonist Tom (a youthful Liam Nunan), and his parents Vic (Julia Davis, delightfully joyful) and Harry (played with a kind heart by Wadih Dona) immigrated to Australia from the UK 8 years ago, and while they love their new home, they are struggling to remain in the present while their son fights a losing battle with leukaemia.
Meanwhile, defiant teenager Meg (a fiery yet sensitive Naomi Rukavina) pleads with her dad Jim (in a warm performance by Marco Chiappi) as he tries to keep the peace between Meg and her stern mother, Gwen (a comic, though deeply pained Heather Mitchell), in a way that is all too reminiscent for any teenage daughter struggling to define herself as an adult.
And then there’s the headmaster, Roy, (Glenn Hazeldine), and his wife Coral (in a captivating performance by Natasha Herbert) who are grieving the loss of their son to the Vietnam war. Roy is struggling to bring his wife back from the depths of sorrow that have consumed her, and Coral against her husband, who won’t acknowledge her pain.
Each family is struggling to remain united amidst their personal turmoils, and hope that a summer away will rejuvenate and refresh them.As a violent storm rips apart the status quo, they are forced into a new reality that awakens and regenerates them, and these are individuals who really need to be awakened and healed.
While Tom is the protagonist, every character’s journey is just as captivating. And beyond Tom’s tragedy, it’s the story of the three mothers which captivate most; one learning to let go, one learning to move on after the loss of a son, and one cherishing every moment she has left with her son.
In director Matthew Lutton’s inventive reimagining of the play, he immerses us in a world that mystifies and enchants; Dale Ferguson’s set of timber floor and poles is reminiscent of the bewitching forest of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, yet has modern elements that make it readily transformable to meet the needs of each scene. Coupled with J. David Franzke’s transcendent soundscape and Paul Jackson’s lighting design, it becomes an overwhelming experience, and the theatre trembles with the power and effect of the storm at the conclusion of the third act, undergoing its biggest visual transformation.
It’s easy to identify with the thirty-year old play in Lutton’s production, with its insightful commentary on the theatricality of human existence and how our undoing can bring about change. While some of the meaning and depth of Gow’s text, and Lutton’s discerning take on it, relies on an understanding of its context (Australian life in the late 60s and the pressure of a war fought by conscripted soldiers), and its use of specific dramatic conventions, particularly Shakespearean allusions, it’s still an enthralling, astute production.
Not only is Gow’s text cyclically structured around Shakespearean texts, opening with the great comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream and concluding strikingly with the tragedy King Lear, but it relies heavily on Shakespearean convention, moulding the structures and theatrical devices used in much of the First Folio to bring greater meaning and depth to Away’s central narrative. Shakespeare’s plays rely on a structure of a journey from broken order, to restoration of a new order through chaos, so Gow’s characters can only be free from their grief once they’ve washed ashore a mystical beach after a storm, united in their confusion and tentative growth. Lutton’s inventive scene transitions are reminiscent of the night in the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and when all the pieces fall together, storm and all, it is astounding; this charming comment on Australian life is brimming with meaning.
This is a quintessentially Australian story. Its stellar cast, astonishing design and striking direction, breathes new life into an already relevant and enduring text; it feels just as powerful in 2017 as it did when it premiered 30 years ago.