An Australian fever-dream
By Leeor Adar
The Sydney Theatre Company/Malthouse collaboration of Michael Gow’s modern classic Away opens with Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to stir the summer heat from the stage to warm this Melbourne audience in winter.
Matthew Lutton’s blaze through the Malthouse Theatre (and now as Artistic Director) has brought Melbourne audiences some extraordinary and outlandish theatre to feast upon in recent seasons. The announcement that Away would be on the banquet table for procuring no doubt left many theatregoers with a morbid curiosity. The matrimony between the rugged Australian summer depicted in Gow’s writing and director Lutton’s horror dream of dancing animal skulls somehow takes this classic to new contemporary heights. Yes, Dale Ferguson’s costume design keeps us well within the bounds of the 60s, but his set complies with the post-modern theatrics we’ve come to expect from the Malthouse under the gaze of Lutton. Lutton injects into Gow’s world a kind of dystopian synchronicity that plays out as the actors dance in formations together like glamourous zombies trying to forget their realities to Stephanie Lake’s choreography.
What we have depicted in Away is an Australia of then which is not that much different from the Australia of today. Everyone has high hopes for the Aussie dream, but even in the most comfortable homes the world outside will always rudely awaken us. What unites the families of Tom (Liam Nunan) and Meg (Naomi Rukavina), our high school would-be, could-be, not-be lovers, is the quiet sadness and acceptance of a life that was hard-won. The fear that something could steal the dream away lurks beneath the happy exteriors of (most) of Gow’s characters, and becomes a focal point of the play. That dream is already stolen from Roy (Glenn Hazeldine) and Coral (Natasha Herbert) through the loss of their son in the Vietnam War. Herbert’s Kim-Novak look-alike Coral continuously treads the line between reality and the past, slipping further and further away from the desperate grasp of her husband. Coral is not mad because Roy cannot control her; she is in such a deep state of grieving that the Aussie dream is well and truly lost for her. Herbert gives Coral a fluid naivety damaged by tragedy; her performance is one of the heart-breaking standout’s alongside Liam Nunan’s Tom.
Amongst the great pretenders are Vic (Julia Davis) and Harry (Wadih Dona) who manage to live in the moment as they watch their son Tom slip away from them due to his illness. We know the inevitability of grief will befall them, and they too may just stop smiling through their sadness and join Coral on her faraway shore.
In contrast we have the couple whose great tragedy is staying together, existing in a chronic state of unhappiness in which no holiday can salvage. Heather Mitchell’s Gwen is marvellously funny and annoying as her shrill voice drains her family of any moments of joy; a complacent husband Jim (Marco Chiappi) continues to accept his lot with a resigned shruggery. Their family is one blessed with health, but they are not untouched by the life of having lived as battlers-come-good. Gwen’s chronic state of stress is indicative of another kind of grief, one where a lifelong sacrifice for a future yet lived leaves traces of bitterness.
This is still a sensitive and poignant production by Lutton amidst the jarring devices of non-naturalism that threatens to break down the walls of their world. Audiences will be surprised from the outset of this play; if they are expecting a classic re-telling of Away they will be in for an awakening – but it really is a very good one.
Away will grace Melbourne audiences at the Malthouse Theatre until May 28th. Collect your tickets here: http://malthousetheatre.com.au/whats-on/away?gclid=Cj0KEQjwoqvIBRD6ls6og8qB77YBEiQAcqqHe6-xVP730ooUfRIBdx6VZ67CrJxYFl3Ytuu3-bHvzQcaAulB8P8HAQ