The Golden Age

Wharf Theatre, January 19

2S4A8687

Back: Robert Menzies, Sarah Peirse, Anthony Taufa. Front: Liam Nunan, Rarriwuy Hick and Zindzi Okenyo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Louis Nowra’s epic play The Golden Age hasn’t been staged professionally in Sydney since 1987, following its Melbourne premiere two years earlier. This stunning Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Kip Williams, confirms that it is an Australian classic and as relevant as ever.

Thrillingly ambitious in its scope and imagination, the play roams from Hobart to the Tasmanian wilderness to Berlin at the end of World War II.

It begins in 1939. Two young men – Francis (Brandon McClelland), an engineer from a working class background, and his friend Peter (Remy Hii) from a well-to-do Hobart family – hike into the Tasmanian wilderness and discover a lost tribe descended from a motley group of European convicts and settlers, including one actor.

Isolated for 80 years, they have developed their own language and culture but have serious physical and mental disorders because of inbreeding. Realising that “the circle is burst” and they have no future, their leader Queenie Ayre (Sarah Peirse) decides they will return to civilisation with Francis and Peter.

However, the government is concerned that their genetic problems will be used as proof of Nazi propaganda and insists on putting them in an asylum until the end of the war.

Nowra vividly evokes the world of the tribe, inventing a muscular language drawn from Cockney, Irish, 1840s convict slang and bawdy verses. At first we have little idea what they’re saying but as some of it is explained and our ear attunes, we begin to decipher meaning. He also folds Greek drama and Shakespeare into the mix of the play.

The Golden Age takes an unflinching look at Australia’s colonial past and culture of ‘she’ll be right’ indifference, articulated in a particularly passionate speech by Francis. Themes include the destruction of one culture by another, what constitutes civilisation, war, class and the search for love, identity and belonging.

At its heart is the touching love story between Francis and Betsheb (Rarriwuy Hick), a young woman from the tribe, who are separated during the war years when Francis and Peter enlist and are sent to Europe, but who offer a glimpse of optimism amid the tragedy.

Williams’ production unfolds with cinematic fluidity on David Fleischer’s set, dominated by a huge mound of earth. It’s not particularly attractive and works better in some scenes than others. Initially, it seems like a rather drab, arid rendering of the Tasmanian wilderness, even with the odd leafy branch thrown onto it. It also looks odd to have an elegant dinner party scene in Hobart next to it. But it gradually seems to accrue meaning, symbolising the harshness of the story and the intermingling of the characters’ fates as the earth is paddled around the stage.

Fleischer’s excellent costuming feels very authentic. The production is beautifully lit by Damien Cooper, while Max Lyandvert’s sound is richly evocative.

It’s terrific to see such colour-blind casting, with actors from a number of different backgrounds, most of which simply ‘is’. Having Indigenous actor Ursula Yovich as the aristocratic, rather cold Elizabeth Archer, who utters sentiments such as “What a pathetic group they look, like those Aboriginals in shanty towns”, meanwhile, feels deliberately provocative and heightens the discomfort of such lines.

Among a strong ensemble, Hick shines as Betsheb, capturing her inquisitive, high-spirited, wild nature. Peirse is compelling as Ayre, exuding a natural authority as well as her desperation to protect the tribe and its heritage. Liam Nunan’s physicality as the crippled Stef is superb and McClelland is a passionate Francis. Robert Menzies also excels as combative tribesman Melorne and as Peter’s father, Doctor Archer, who becomes obsessed with the tribe.

Complex, challenging and wildly theatrical, The Golden Age has a haunting, dreamlike quality yet at the same time it feels painfully, movingly real.

The Golden Age plays at Wharf I until February 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 24

Advertisements

The Present

Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 8

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun on stage, then eventually it must be used. In his latest Chekhov adaptation, The Present, Andrew Upton wastes no time, starting the tragicomedy with a bang.

In fact, Upton has the characters pull the trigger several times before the play’s dramatic conclusion – just some of the fireworks, emotional and literal, that punctuate and power this blisteringly brilliant Sydney Theatre Company production.

Upton has adapted a number of classic Russian plays with considerable success – Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, Maxim Gorky’s Philistines and Children of the Sun, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard – but The Present is arguably his best yet.

Written around 1878, Chekhov’s sprawling, untitled first play – often called Platonov after its central character – would run around five hours in its original form but Upton has condensed it to a gripping three hours including interval.

He has updated the action from pre-revolutionary Russia to the mid-1990s, post-Perestroika, another period of great change and disillusionment. Instead of the main protagonists being 20-something as Chekhov had them, they are in their 40s, intensifying their feelings of yearning, regret and frustration.

The play is set in the country house of Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett), the widow of an older, powerful General, where a group of friends and acquaintances gather to celebrate her 40th birthday. Among them are local doctor Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), Anna’s stepson, the slightly nerdy, awkward Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his brittle new wife Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), a doctor who has recently returned from working overseas.

Anna has also invited two powerful landowners (David Downer and Martin Jacobs) hoping one of them might marry her, securing her land and fortune.

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

At the heart of the play is Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), who has not fulfilled his brilliant promise as a young intellectual and is now a womanising schoolteacher.

Mikhail brings his sweet but gauche wife (Susan Prior) and baby son. However, his roving eye soon alights on Sophia, a former flame, and Nikolai’s gorgeous girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford) – though it’s clear his heart belongs to Anna.

Irish director John Crowley helms a superbly paced production on Alice Babidge’s impressive, almost-naturalistic set, which moves from a verandah outside the dacha to a small balloon-festooned summerhouse to a night scene in swirling mist, and back to the dacha for the morning after, this time inside. It’s brilliantly lit by Nick Schlieper with a powerful sound design by Stefan Gregory who uses music by The Clash and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart to punctuate scenes.

Together Upton, Crowley and the magnificent cast nail the Chekhovian balance between laughter and tears as the characters struggle to deal with life in the here-and-now.

The first of the four acts is a slow burn as the guests arrive. Tensions and animosities simmer beneath the desultory chat, with conversations cutting across each other, all of which is performed with a convincingly spontaneous feel. Then, in the aftermath of lunch, the play suddenly explodes into shattering life.

Roxburgh gives one of the performances of his career as Mikhail, capturing his wit and charisma but also his world-weary vulnerability and self-loathing. Blanchett is equally virtuosic as Anna, moving from bored containment to drunken abandon. Both draw on deep, uninhibited emotional reserves and the chemistry between them is electric.

But it’s a genuine ensemble piece with superb performances from the entire 13-strong cast (which also includes Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland and Andrew Buchanan). As Upton prepares to leave STC at the end of the year, The Present is a thrilling parting gift.

The Present plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until September 19. It is sold out but $20 Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online at http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 16