Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Away, May 4, 2017 ***

Written by Michael Gow, by Malthouse Theatre 
At Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until May 28, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***
Review also published at Herald Sun Arts online on Fri May 5, 2017 and later in print. K

 Julia Davis, Marco Chiappi, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell, Glenn Hazeldine - photo Pia Johnson 

Imagine Christmas holidays with stinking hot, summer days spent in a tent or caravan then add a cyclonic storm and fraught family relationships, and you have Michael Gow’s 1986 play, Away.

Set in the summer of 1967, when the previous, older generations collided with the modern, youthful 60s and Australian boys were dying in Vietnam, Away follows three families on their various summer holidays where they confront their grief and the fragility and changing nature of their lives.

Because of its abstract style and its focus on issues including family, grief and redemption, Away is popular with schools and often studied in VCE.

Julia Davis and Wadih Dona are warm and engaging as English immigrants, Vic and Harry, who maintain a relentlessly cheerful demeanour to avoid facing their son Tom’s (Liam Nunan) ill health.

Glenn Hazeldine balances playfulness with sadness as school principal, Roy, while Natasha Herbert portrays his grieving wife, Coral, with an eerie, disassociated distance that embodies Coral’s depression.

In perhaps the most fractious relationship, Marco Chiappi’s Jim is gentle and tolerant with his peevish and maddening wife, Gwen, played by Heather Mitchell with barely masked, seething rage that Gwen directs at everyone and everything, including her daughter, Meg (Naomi Rukavina).

Matthew Lutton’s stylish production is most successful in the early scenes before the holidays begin, when the entire cast performs a hilariously shambolic high school, end-of-year version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we witness the families preparing for their trips.

The anxious atmosphere in each household suggests hidden issues and hints at the impending, grim and explosive problems confronting these temperamental families.

The atmospheric lighting (Paul Jackson) and stark stage design (Dale Ferguson) elevate the almost supernatural quality of the production, accentuating the sense of dislocation and confusion of the characters.

The stylisation of Lutton’s direction is often visually interesting, but ultimately and perhaps frustratingly, it is unclear what Gow’s play is really trying to say, it is also unclear whose story it is, and the threads to Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest, King Lear and The Dream, are tenuous at best.

Further problems occur towards the end of the play: both Gwen and Coral recover and learn to commune with the rest of the world rather too quickly and effortlessly, and the final scene is almost absurdly melodramatic when Tom ‘walks into the light’.

Despite its flaws, Gow’s popular play has become part of the Australian theatre lexicon and this production succeeds to a great degree because of its capable cast.

By Kate Herbert
 Marco Chiappi, Heather Mitchell, Natasha Herbert, Wadhi Dona, Julia Davis & Liam Nunan_photo Pia Johnson

Matthew Lutton - Director
Dale Ferguson - Design
Paul Jackson - :Lighting
J David Franzke - Sound

Julia Davis - Vic
Wadih Dona - Harry
Glenn Hazeldine - Roy
Natasha Herbert - Coral
Marco Chiappi - Jim
Heather Mitchell Gwen
Liam Nunan - Tom
Naomi Rukavina - Meg

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