There’s the moment when you walk into a theatre and get the first look of the world you’re going to be playing in. And all fear of the play that Patrick White himself called “a dishonest play” flew when faced with a real bald mountain.
Dale Ferguson’s design for Night on Bald Mountain is a roof-to-floor and wall-to-wall terraced mountain made of plywood with secret doors opening into endless black and secret goats for instant joy. With Paul Jackson’s always-glorious lighting, we’re taken from dawn to dawn on the mountain and into a house that wants to be part of a landscape that it doesn’t belong in.
Neil Armfield, a close friend of White who directed many of his plays, once said in Meanjin that White’s plays “only work in wonderful productions. Patrick knew this, and that is why he was so selective about his directors. And it’s not a case of bad writing needing to be rescued, or papered over; rather the plays present great challenges that need to be overcome.”
Matthw Lutton directs this Mountain. He was a child when White died in 1990, so never saw the author-approved productions, yet his vision of this 50-year-old work finds a completeness in the difficult-to-perform play.
With its goat-lady chorus of one, an older couple who never found each other, a young couple who never have a chance to find each other, and outsiders who want to but can’t escape the mountain, it’s a psychological piece about character. But Lutton doesn’t let this constant exploration dominate and his movement around and through the imposing mountain creates a pace that drives the story, lets the comedy come freely, and creates a tension that lets us hope for an ending that isn’t pre-destined by the mountain’s slippery paths and crevices.
Actors love White because there is so much in discover in his characters and his language. This cast – and it’s worth seeing if only for the cast – approach their characters in ways that result in different styles of performance, and this somehow adds to the complexity without ruining the overall flavour. Nikki Sheils’s sunny naturalism, Julie Forsyth’s Brechtian distance and Melita Jurisic’s anguished almost-expressionism should clash, but the combination of unique performer and character bring a closeness to the characters while still maintaining the distance that allows us to see the wholeness of the work.
This push-and-pull is supported by David Franzke’s sound that mixes amplified and natural sound – and Ida Duelund Hansen’s live music – to bring us into mountain and its people or leave us safely watching from afar.
It’s a production that brings a very-now theatre aesthetic to a work that could easily get stuck in the 60s, and ultimately lets us see the writing of Patrick White though fresh eyes.