First performed in 2005, Simon Stephens’ On The Shore of the Wide World is the story of the Holmes family as they try and negotiate their world, and how they deal with whatever life throws at them. Told across a nine month period, we follow the parents, the children and the grandparents, as they fall in and out of love, as they try to make sense of everything. As produced here, in its Australian premiere production by pantsguys and Griffin Independent, this Laurence Olivier award-winning play is all at once elegant, sprawling and startlingly honest.
There’s something quintessentially British about Stephens’ play, almost the embodiment of ‘keep calm and carry on,’ but underneath this apparent calm is an interior every bit as turbulent as the ocean beyond that shore. Granted, it’s a play about humanity, but it’s also about people. Often, plays depict characters who we’d like to think of as people, but more often than not they stay as characters; here, Stephens’ characters feel real to us, we grow to care for them all, the Holmes family and their friends, lovers and acquaintances. Through his slightly disjointed lines, his depiction of the rhythms and patterns of speech, and the interactions of his characters, Stephens creates people and, upon its conclusion, we feel as though we know them. Perhaps not intimately, but better than if we’d just met them. It’s a gentle play, gentle but fierce, not to mention tender, bittersweet, (as well as bitter and sweet), funny, beautiful and raw.
Gez Xavier Mansfield’s set, made from a canvas tarpauline fashioned into a rough kind of curtain, draped and heaped at the rear of the little Griffin stage, feels as raw as the characters’ emotions, eversoslightly ragged and crumpled. A bit like a makeshift tent, a refuge, on the shore of the wide world, a place where lost souls can find the strength to negotiate, mend and heal, grow together or drift apart.
The cast are all tremendous, and there are no real lead roles or grandstanding performances; the play is very much an ensemble piece, and it works to the production’s advantage to be playing in such a small and intimate space such as Griffin, where the audience grows to feel part of the story; the story almost becomes ours, just as much as the characters’. Being an ensemble show, singling out favourite roles or performers is perhaps futile, but there is an honesty to Huw Higginson’s fatherly Peter, and Lily Newbury-Freeman’s Sarah, the eldest son’s girlfriend. Their scenes together are imbued with warmth and a tender cheekiness, a playfulness which belies the seriousness of their characters’ lives. As a play about parents and children, fathers and sons, it is perhaps the women in the Holmes family who are shown to be perhaps not the strongest but the most resilient; grandmother Ellen, mum Alice and Sarah are all written with grace and a light which shines from them, lifting the others around them to their feet so they can carry on.
Across its three-hours’ running time, there are many beautifully observed and written moments of familial joy, of personal and private tragedy, and under Anthony Skuse’s gentle but assured direction, no moment feels lost or wasted, overplayed or forced. It feels real, and that is perhaps the highest compliment I can give any director. Stephens doesn’t dwell on moments between extraneous characters, such as Paul, John, and Susan, but still gives them their moment to shine and to bloom on stage. If you look at the play itself, at its structure, it is essentially a web of double-hander scenes. Stephens splits and fragments them, intersects them, and allows them to bleed and feed into each other, a style which is only amplified by Skuse’s directorial decision of ‘ghosting’ the characters through the backgrounds of others’ scenes. While this decision, on a practical level, solves the very real logistical limitations of having ten people in the tiny backstage space, it also allows them and us, the audience, to share the play’s humanity, draws us all into the (not quite so) wide world of the Holmes family.
Ultimately, I am reminded of a beat in the Benjamin Button screenplay, when Daisy and Benjamin meet again, after many years apart. “They embrace for some time and kiss. As people who haven’t seen each other, and have thought about each other for a very long time. And it just is – no big symphonies, no endless skies. Just, two people at a kitchen door in the middle of their lives, and the simplicity, just that, is what makes it real and breaks your heart.” I guess that’s what lies at the heart of Stephens’ play – no fanfares, no bells and whistles, no big symphonies; just one family clinging to each other, trying to weather it out as best they can. They don’t have all the answers, but I don’t suppose we ever do, all of the time.
You’re not the first person who it’s ever happened to, you know? … It happens all the time. It’s people. It’s what we’re like.
Theatre playlist: 2. Song for Bob,
& Warren Ellis Nick