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

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Masquerade

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 9

Louis Fontaine, Helen Dallimore and Nathan O'Keefe. Photo: Brett Boardman

Louis Fontaine, Helen Dallimore and Nathan O’Keefe. Photo: Brett Boardman

Laid low with cancer as a child, Kate Mulvany fell in love with Kit Williams’ classic picture book Masquerade while in hospital. She has now adapted it for the stage, interweaving the moving story of a very sick child and his mother.

Co-produced by Griffin Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and playing as part of the Sydney Festival, Masquerade is a delightful family show that captures the style, tone and quirky magic of the quixotic book.

Masquerade tells a strange, fantastical, riddle-filled story. The Moon is full of longing for the Sun and so sends the bumbling Jack Hare to deliver him a message of love along with a golden, bejeweled, hare-shaped amulet. Given the laws of nature, Jack has just 12 hours to complete his mission between sunrise and sunset.

Along the way he meets all kinds of crazy characters from Tara Treetops and The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round to Sir Isaac Newton. But when he reaches the Sun Jack finds he has lost the amulet and forgotten the precise wording of the message.

Published in 1979, the book became a phenomenon not just for its story but for the wonderfully detailed paintings (also by Williams) that illustrated it. In each picture was hidden a hare. On top of that, the book contained clues to a real golden amulet that Williams had hidden somewhere in England (which was discovered in 1982).

Williams is now something of a recluse but Mulvany managed to make contact with him through his wife Eleyn (a jeweler) and visited them at their home in Gloucestershire. Touched by the story of her own connection to the book, Williams gave Mulvany permission to adapt it for the stage on two conditions: that she include her own story and that the production be a family play for anyone aged nine to 90.

Mulvany’s adaptation begins in a hospital where a single mother called Tessa (Helen Dallimore) starts reading the book to her son Joe (Jack Andrew at the opening performance, a role he shares with Louis Fontaine) to help cheer him after chemotherapy. As she reads, the story unfolds around Joe’s curtained hospital bed.

Mulvany adds a second act in which Tessa and Joe enter the world of the story and try to help Jack Hare (Nathan O’Keefe) find the amulet.

Directed by Lee Lewis and Sam Strong, the production features a vibrant, clever design by Anna Cordingley that references the look of the book while creating an aesthetic of its own.

Pip Brandon, Nathan O'Keefe and Kate Cheel. Photo: Brett Boardman

Pip Brandon, Nathan O’Keefe and Kate Cheel. Photo: Brett Boardman

A band of letters frames the stage (as it does the drawings in the book) and is used to spell out the answers to the riddles. Joe’s hospital bed sits centrestage on a revolve, with images projected onto the curtains when they are drawn. The bed is replaced by another structure for the second act.

Cordingley’s wonderful costumes are colourful and inventive, though the text cries out for a more dazzlingly gold suit for the Sun (Mikelangelo) than the rather subtly shiny one he wears.

Geoff Cobham’s lighting also brings colour and magic to the stage, though some performers occasionally got caught in half-light on opening night. The silvery light for the Moon (Kate Cheel) could be a little more luminously otherworldly, but there are lots of nice lighting effects.

The production also features original music and songs composed by Pip Branson and Mikelangelo and performed live by Balkan cabaret band Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, which work a treat.

Running two hours including interval, the first act unfolds a little slowly and could be tightened. Some people who didn’t know the book were also slightly bemused by some of the characters.

In Act Two, however, the play finds its rhythm. Mulvany has included lots of fun word play with jokes for adults and children. Jack’s lusting for carrots, in particular, caused much laughter from the young children near me.

The emotional dimension of the play also really kicks in after interval (though it has been building towards the end of the first act). Mulvany hasn’t shied away from darker themes of mortality, pain and grief (as well as the power of love) ­­– though the way she uses the explanation of death from The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round is movingly and gently applied.

Louis Fontaine, Kate Cheel and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nathan O’Keefe, Louis Fontaine, Kate Cheel and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Brett Boardman

There are terrific performances across the board. O’Keefe is outstanding as Jack Hare, bringing oodles of endearing charm and sweet, goofy comedy to the pivotal role.

Dallimore and Andrew work beautifully together as the deeply worried but loving, stalwart Tessa and the terminally ill Joe, both giving authentic, moving performances that never tip into sentimentality.

Cheel is lovely as the ethereal Moon and ebullient Tara Treetops, while Zindzi Okenyo – who juggles the roles of a Fat Nurse, a dancing Fat Pig, the mean Penny Pockets, the yoga-practicing Dawn and a friendly fish – does a great job of creating very different, clearly delineated, quirky characters.

The musicians also take on roles with Mikelangelo as The Sun and The Practical Man, Branson as The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round and Sir Isaac Newton, and Guy Freer, Sam Martin and Phil Moriarty as a tone-deaf Barber’s Quartet reduced to a trio.

The production will doubtless be finessed as it develops but already Masquerade is a gently charming, moving show made with a lot of love.

Masquerade plays at the Sydney Opera House until January 17. Bookings: www.sydneyfestival.org.au/masquerade or 1300 856 876 or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 11