Swansong

Old Fitz Theatre, March 15

Swansong

Andre de Vanny. Photo: Robert Catto

In the late-night 9.30pm time slot at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo, Andre de Vanny is performing Connor McDermottroe’s solo show Swansong. Returning after a brief season in the same venue at the end of last year, it’s a sterling performance that is very much worth catching.

McDermottroe is an Irish actor, writer and director, who lived in Australia for 10 years in the 1980s after coming to the Sydney Festival with the Druid Theatre Company. Swansong is set mainly in his native Sligo and centres on a troubled, violent misfit called Occi Byrne, the illegitimate child of a single mother in the Catholic West of Ireland whose life has been lived on the margins for as long as he can remember.

Occi suspects that an unfortunate but typically rash, barrel-rolling incident as a child may have shaken his head a bit loose. Be that as it may, he is full of uncontrollable rage that can bubble over in an instant. One particular piece of name-calling is guaranteed to get him really riled and then look out. At the same time, he has a poet’s eye as well as a keen sense of self-awareness and can spin an eloquent, compelling yarn.

It’s similar terrain to Enda Walsh’s Misterman and Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie, both given superb productions in recent times at the Old Fitz. Swansong may not be in quite the same league as a play, though there is plenty to admire and enjoy in the writing. But De Vanny’s performance is every bit as electrifying.

We meet Occi feeding a swan he has named Agnes. Swans mate for life, he tells us, but Agnes is alone after two swans fought over her and died. Instead, Occi is there for her, bringing her bread and finding strength in her grace and beauty. From there, he takes us on a journey through his miserable life from school days to a disastrous attempt to join the army.

After an appalling incident at the social security centre, Occi spends time in a psychiatric hospital where he glimpses salvation in the form of a depressive young woman called Mary. There’s also a blissful afternoon on an island while he is working on a fishing trawler. But with Occi’s explosive temper happiness isn’t destined to last.

Directed by Greg Carroll, De Vanny keeps the audience gripped for the play’s 80-minute duration. Wiry, compact and muscly with blazing eyes, he is able to spin on a dime – dancing around like a boxer, cheery, optimistic and laughing one minute; the next, his body contorted into a tense knot of coiled energy, eyes cold and crazed. Physically and vocally, it’s an astonishing performance, while emotionally he takes you through every twist and turn of Occi’s psychotic personality.

De Vanny even manages to elicit empathy. Against the odds, you care about Occi and can’t help but be moved by his awful existence – a tribute to both the writing and the performance.

Swansong plays at the Old Fitz Theatre until March 26. Bookings: oldfitztheatre.com

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Of Mice and Men

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, July 16

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Iain Sinclair has directed a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Men and Men for Sport for Jove that feels heartbreakingly truthful.

Steinbeck himself adapted the play from his classic 1937 novella set during the Depression. Two itinerant ranch workers George Milton (Anthony Gooley) and Lennie Small (Andrew Henry) have been roaming California looking for work. To keep them going, George inspires Lennie with the dream that one day they will buy their own property (from some elderly folk he knows) where they will keep a few animals including Lennie’s longed-for fluffy rabbits.

The trouble is that Lennie is a bit soft in the head. A gentle-minded giant who doesn’t know his own strength, he keeps petting small animals to death. Arriving at a farm, George tells Lennie to say nothing, keep his head down and do what he says in the hope that they will be left alone and all will be well. And Lennie so wants to do the right thing but when situations conspire against him, he just can’t help himself.

Sinclair has directed a beautiful, understated production that unfolds at an unhurried pace, while still building the feeling of inexorable tragedy. It is a clear, empathic reading that strikes at the heart, while the play feels as timely as ever given the vast numbers of displaced, disenfranchised, struggling people the world over.

Michael Hankin’s set design – a wooden slatted wall, four long wooden poles and a dirt floor with wood chips, along with basic wooden beds, tables and crates – feels just right, while Sian James-Holland’s lighting creates changing moods and captures the passing of time.

Sinclair has cast it perfectly – right down to the poor old dog, which is taken out and shot because it is stinking up the place. It’s a tense moment as we wait, seemingly for ages, to hear the shot – foreshadowing things to come.

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Henry gives an unforgettable performance as Lennie. He is a tall man and naturally slim but he stacked on around 20 kilos for the role. It certainly gives him a sense of bulkiness, emphasised by the way he stands very squarely and solidly when still, feet planted apart, and lumbers around the stage in his dirty overalls.

He also captures Lennie’s naivety beautifully with a slightly bemused expression. When something delights him, he gives this childish little jump of joy accompanied by a beatific smile. At times, it’s almost unbearably touching, knowing what’s coming.

Gooley balances him perfectly as the loyal, steady George who battles constant frustration but stands by Lennie through thick and thin. The two of them really do convey the feeling of a long-standing relationship and of great love.

They are surrounded by an impressive ensemble: Christopher Stollery as Slim, a decent man with natural authority, Laurence Coy as Candy, an old-timer who has lost one hand and who allows himself to dream of a better future with George and Lennie, John McNeil as the bullish Carlson, Tom Stokes as the young, inexperienced Whit, Andre de Vanny as the boss’s aggressive son Curley, Anna Houston as Curley’s unhappy wife, Terry Serio as the Boss (who also plays some guitar blues), and Charles Allen as the segregated black worker Crooks.

Running around two hours and forty minutes including interval, the production keeps you gripped throughout. As it moves to its shattering conclusion you can feel people holding their breath. On the night I saw it there was a long silence at the end – a mark, I think, of how deeply affected people were.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Seymour Centre until August 1. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944