Crossing the line: Griffin’s The Floating World

Written in 1974, and first performed at Melbourne’s Pram Factory theatre, John Romeril’s The Floating World has become something of an Australian classic. Very much concerned with the devastating effects of war and trauma upon individuals and societies long after the event has passed, The Floating World seems almost prescient in its relevance, nearly forty years later. Set on board the 1974 Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom tour ship, itself a converted troop ship, Romeril’s The Floating World is the story of Les Harding’s decline and fall from grace. “An electrifying descent into one man’s wartime nightmare,” it is a discomforting and harrowing story as we follow Les’ journey towards Japan, and we watch, sometimes in horror, as his grip on reality soon falls away.
Directed by Sam Strong, it is a robust and startlingly contemporary story, one that still shocks, confronts and unnerves, forty years on. This is in no way a bad thing. If anything, it is all the more alarming, to see how little we have changed in many respects, despite convincing ourselves otherwise. Attracted to its unruliness and its determination to not stay on the page in a neat and civilised manner, Strong describes how Romeril’s script is a rampage through many wildly different narrative modes (comedy, satire, irony, political drama), along the way violating several ‘rules’ of theatrical storytelling: a second act which is longer than the first, and ending with a twenty-minute monologue. But it is perhaps because of this unruliness, because of this determination to not stay in one fixed place, that The Floating World is still as successful as it has been.

Aided by Stephen Curtis’ malleable and simple stage design – white walls and floor, a low platform, a green shimmering curtain – and his equally effective costumes, Strong’s vision of Les’ downfall is as confronting to us, the audience, as it is to Les’ wife Irene and those on the ship with him. As several actors play multiple characters, their costume changes – and the distinction of their costumes in signifying othernesses – is paramount to the success of the ‘reality’ of Les’ desperate and often helpless situation. Verity Hampson’s lighting and Kelly Ryall’s score and sound design are equally clever, quite simple and subtle, but by no means less effective for being so. If anything, they make the ending more confronting by the lack of anything in the white space except for Les himself.
Intensely political, and unavoidably so, it “takes the rough, loud-mouthed social criticism [of] 1970s Australia,” and presents it as a vision of “a prosperous self-satisfied culture – isolated, materialistic, xenophobic – [as it is] invaded by global interests.” There is anger too, lots of it, angry not at us but at our past – the past of the characters, and for us as audience members – and at our failure to admit the enormity of where we’ve come from, as a country. Not officially dismantled until 1978, the White Australia Policy and the process of selective immigration is a key factor in the world of Romeril’s characters, as it was at the time he was writing the play. And no matter how far we’d like to think we’ve come as a nation since then, the fact remains that we are still ashamed by the political truths at the heart of Romeril’s play, the focus of his anger. Perhaps, as Katherine Brisbane suggests in the play-text’s introduction, “our fear of being governed by an alien [authority] derives from a deep-seated inability to come to terms with ourselves. It is the overwhelming need to conform, the energy spent on keeping up with one’s defences that brings about tragedy in Romeril’s work.” As we see in Les Harding, as perhaps with Shakespeare’s Ophelia, “the extreme alternative to conformity [is] madness.”
This madness, whilst appearing spasmodically throughout the play, fully explodes in a blast of fluorescent light as Les descends into his nightmarish visions, and the play becomes a stream of consciousness babble, as Les’ brain short-circuits. “The controls on his life [are] blown into fragments, he is floating free again, a whole man, living vividly with all his sense” inside his own head. As performed by Peter Kowitz, Les’ decline is heartbreaking and frighteningly real; his end monologue is a tour-de-force, a twenty-minute break-neck ricochet through the synapses and interconnected (and often unconnected) thoughts of a man living without a foothold on reality.
Valerie Bader as Irene is tender and defiant, not willing to suffer Les’ decline any longer, but still very much in love with the man he once was. As Les launches skirmish after skirmish on her, she stands resolute in trying to understand him, but perhaps he is too far gone already. Tony Llewellyn-Jones is, as always, superb, and his retired Royal Navy “admiral of vices” is in counterpoint to Les, and his friendship with Irene can perhaps be a substitute for the man Les once was. Justin Smith as the Comic is crude and fast-talking, smooth, too, and unsettlingly funny in an ‘am-I-meant-to-laugh?’ kind of way. You’re never quite sure what he’s going to say next, what outrageous comment he’s going to make. Justin Stewart Cotta as McLeod lends a certain gravitas to proceedings, and imbues Les’ visions with a kind of credence. He is, in many ways, the colours that allow Les to fill in the lines of his increasingly-vivid nightmares. Shingo Usami as the Waiter is smooth-talking and polite, but there is also a playfulness to him, a lightness to his scenes with Irene, and when he emerges as the Japanese solider in Les’ nightmare, we suddenly get a very real vision of just what Les is experiencing inside his head.
Twenty-first century audiences will find much of the humour in Romeril’s play unsettling, and we’re not quite sure whether to laugh or not. But by laughing, we are not necessarily sharing the same beliefs and views as the characters in Romeril’s 1974, but rather acknowledging how far we have/n’t come since. We are still a largely xenophobic nation – one just has to look at the recent policies on boat people and asylum seekers to see this in action – even though we’d like to think we’re open-minded and tolerant of ‘others.’ Today, our reactions are couched in irony and embedded within pseudo-intellectual arguments, but the fact remains that we are still scared of the ‘other,’ whether we like it or not.
Ultimately, “The Floating World is a resonating tale of the long-lasting effects of war and the ugly world of xenophobic Australia,” in both the 1970s and contemporary Australia. To quote Sam Strong, it combines the roughest of humour with a “moving portrait of one man’s disintegration; a vivid recreation of the unimaginable horrors of war [seen] through the kitsch technicolour lens of a 1970s cruise ship.” None of the characters are played crassly or as a caricature and it is one of the production’s greatest strengths. Every character and scene is played sincerely, with heart and feeling, and the result kicks you in the gut, hard. Very hard.

Theatre playlist: 31. The Galapagos, Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon & Richard Tognetti

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