Michael Gow’s 1987 classic is back on at Sydney Theatre Company. Playing at the Opera House Drama Theatre, this production is directed by Matthew Lutton and is decidedly dark, right down from the design and lighting choices, to the tone of its more dramatic scenes. Most Australians who went to school between 1994 and today are probably familiar with Away, as it has been on the HSC syllabus, partly due to its allusions to Shakespeare and the historical context in which it is set. Of course, Away concerns Australians, our place in the world, and our ongoing evolution into a mature nation. It is a fairly “white” story, despite the diverse casting choices of this production. However, the play is still set in 1968, and so it’s about a post-Menzian, Vietnam War era Australia, and when the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy were still on the books.
Possibly as a result of not paying close enough attention in class, or because of a concerted effort by my brain to forget all the books they forced me to read in school – I went into this play with only the vaguest recollections of the plot and the characters. But I hadn’t forgotten that it was a play about growing up. Like so much of the Australian theatrical canon, the theme of self-actualisation, particularly in the characters of Tom, Meg and Coral, was prominent and a driving part of the story. In one sense, the story is a reworking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with each character having an allegorical pairing with a character in Shakespeare’s play – but on a deeper, and in my view, more important level, the play remains relevant because it deals with the things that Australians are still arguing about: our place in the world; our responsibilities to each other; and our relationship to the land on which we live.
Gow’s text is excellent – and worthy of study. He was writing twenty years after the time portrayed in the play, but his references to 60s Australiana are funny, and in their own way illuminating of the small-mindedness of the time. What struck me about the story – and what never occurred to me as a teenager – was how emotional the lives of the adults are, particularly Coral and Roy. I think a High School reading of the play naturally focusses on the lives of teenagers Tom and Meg – and their story is important – but this production creates an ensemble piece, with brilliant doubling and an intelligent blending of the three families’ plotlines.
Glen Hazeldine is brilliant as Roy, moving me to tears as he implores his wife to overcome the death of their son – conscripted to fight in Vietnam. His anguish, confusion and exasperation is met with resignation from Coral, played by Natasha Herbert. Her performance is tragic yet warm, and she does well to render Coral as something more than a grieving basket-case.
Heather Mitchell pitches her performance brilliantly as Gwen, a once proud and ambitious woman who has become a twisted crank, waiting until the last possible moment to demure and become an object of our sympathy. Marco Chiappi, as her henpecked and resigned husband, navigates her abuse out of a love for the woman she once was. His reserved style plays brilliantly against Mitchell’s ferocity.
Liam Nunan, as Tom, is captivating. He goes the whole play hiding a terrible secret, and gives a warm, and vulnerable performance. Nunan is certainly one to watch. It’s amazing how the play turns so quickly from a story about three different families from three different socio-economic backgrounds, to an exploration of the interconnectedness of people – and how the fracturing of relationships between lovers, between generations, between children and parents, can lead to sadness, but also renewal. The act of going away brings this all together, precipitating a collision of forces that cause each character to change in their own particular way. I think Lutton has done really well here, allowing for the drama to be at the forefront, rather than aiming for laughs.
The show had a few bizarre and ultimately dull dance sequences, which effectively functioned as scenic transitions and not much more. They brought little development to the story, and could have been lost to save time (the production is on the lengthy side at 115 min with no interval).
Michael Gow, speaking at the 2016 Playwright’s Festival in Melbourne, spoke of how he felt that Away’s flaws are obvious in the penultimate scene with Coral and Tom. Apparently, the original text of the scene lacks narrative and emotional drive – with both characters being vague about their intentions and objectives. The scene is truncated in Lutton’s production – a wise choice.
The play’s strength, in my view, is the simplicity and deftness with which it weaves its story. Gow doesn’t waste any time explaining the more boring aspects of Australiana – he completely understands his audience, trusting them with gaps in exposition and allowing us to get invested in what is essentially the heart of this story: the agony we endure in order to be alive. Because this is true! Life is hard, and not everybody gets what they want. Our ability to lie to those we love in order to save them, to support them even when they’re wrong – dead wrong – is a beautiful thing, but also a troubling, problematic, and entirely human flaw. I think that’s the lesson of Gow’s play – that life can be simple, precious, and imperfect - just like his story.