Brechtaking: Belvoir’s Once In Royal David’s City

A new play is always something to look forward to. Griffin Theatre Company knows this, and has made it their mission to be Australia’s new writing theatre. Back in 1986, Griffin produced Michael Gow’s (third) play Away; a critical and popular success, it quickly became Australia’s most produced play as well as a mainstay of English syllabuses across the country. Now, twenty-eight years later, Eamon Flack is directing Gow’s latest play, Once In Royal David’s City for Belvoir.
Billed as “eloquent, playful, big-thinking, tender and fierce … an astonishing act of theatrical invention,” it sounds like it should be the next Babyteeth (also directed by Flack for Belvoir). But a strange thing happens to Gow’s play, when it is taken off the page and put on its feet, when it is spoken and acted. On the page, it is very dialogue-heavy which all theatre is by default. But on its feet, it is very much the Will Drummond show, almost an uninterrupted one-hundred-minute monologue, in which the other characters (actors?) are merely pawns in his chess game, tools to help him tell his story.

Perhaps that sounds unfair. It’s not meant to be. It is a play very much about parents and children, about letting go, dealing with the mortality of loved ones; about moving on but not forgetting. It is about memory, memories, about remembering, and how sometimes we can’t. It is a play about theatre, about theatre-making, just as Gow’s Away and Toy Symphony were, like his Faustus for Bell Shakespeare in 2011 was a veritable checklist of theatrical styles and techniques. And, perhaps incongruously, given the above subjects, it is about Bertolt Brecht, though not to its detriment. Though it’s not surprising, really: like most of Gow’s plays, it’s not a political play, which is of course to say it very muchly is a political play, you just don’t consciously think so at the time. Eamon Flack elucidates upon this theme beautifully in his Director’s Notes, talking about the potential decisions and motives behind the implementing of a national curriculum. Knowledge is power, he says, a kind of light, while a lack of it leads to ignorance. By the same token, knowledge can also be dangerous, if it is selectively constructed and interpreted. And so it is with the intentions behind the national curriculum: it might be seen as a good idea, to make sure all Australian children are being taught the same thing, but at the same time it is also a chance to effectively (and selectively) rewrite (retell?) our national history from a (largely and reprehensively) white point of view. And this is where Gow’s protagonist, Will Drummond, comes into his own at the play’s conclusion.
Early on in the piece, he is approached by a friend of a friend about teaching a group of students about Brecht and his theories of political theatre. Initially, Will was going to decline the opportunity, but he later (thankfully) changes his mind. It’s a unit of study straight out of the senior Drama syllabus, and Gow, sorry, Will – even Will-as-Gow, or Gow-as-Will, I suppose; there has often been a level of autobiography to many of Gow’s plays – has a lot of fun with it, undermining and enriching the students’ experiences in the same breath. In this glorious final scene we, the audience-as-students, are given a crash course in Brecht; if you’re not convinced that this is a political play by the end of the scene, I don’t suppose you ever will be. As Brendan Cowell performs it, it is the kind of class you wish you could have had at school, the kind of robust and vaguely rambunctious lecture which picks you up by the scruff of the neck, shakes you about a bit, and says “This is what I’m on about,” and suddenly you’re all like “yeah yeah yeah I get it now!”
The action takes place in a theatre, a meta-theatrical and reflexive decision if ever there was one. Becoming everything from an airport waiting lounge to rehearsal rooms and cafés, to hospital rooms, houses, classrooms and just about everything in between, it is cleverly facilitated by Nick Schlieper’s white-curtained set and bare wooden floorboards. Perhaps an oblique reference to Brecht’s chalk circle, it is also a simple device to mask and obscure scene changes, to mark the passing of time. When coupled with Schlieper’s lighting, it is simple, effective, unobtrusive and evocative, if perhaps lacking in a touch of the theatrical magic we’ve come to expect from Flack’s productions at Belvoir (As You Like It, Babyteeth, Angels In America).
From an entirely structural standpoint, Once In Royal David’s City is pure Gow. Just as Away used echoes and motifs from Shakespeare, and Live Acts On Stage re-visioned the Greek pantheon as behaving as badly as humans, so Gow uses Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Mother Courage and Her Children as resonating devices within his own play. We watch as Will’s mother Jeannie, Courage-like, drags her bags across the tarmac of the airport, painfully slowly, arriving long after everyone else has left the terminal. We see Courage (and, indeed, courage) in the way she stands up to the doctor examining her husband at the beginning, in the way she keeps going in the face of hardship after hardship, when anyone else might have succumbed to exhaustion and given up. We see Grusha from The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the boy’s protecting of his sister on Christmas Day, as the doctor explains to Will why they cannot operate on his mother, in the way Gail and Wally wander the corridors comforting those in need. We see glimpses of ourselves reflected back at us, when we’re at our best and worst, and we are moved because of it. We are moved because somewhere in this cruel and unforgiving world there is justice, there is beauty.
While I’ve never really been a fan of Brendan Cowell’s, his writing, directing or the blokey waywardness which seems to characterise his performances, he is quite strong here. And perhaps rightly so, considering he barely leaves the stage for the play’s one-hundred minutes. There was, though, an anger and frustration, a forthrightness which didn’t quite sit within the production or Flack’s style; while Cowell perhaps lacked the warmth and humanity – ‘the heart’ is another way of saying it, I suppose – which is so often found throughout the rest of Flack’s work, he was saved by the aplomb and cheeky directness with which he delivered the final scene. For a character who is the narrator, stage-manager and director for the telling of his own story, who is the player on both sides of the chess board, I felt that there was a subtlety and depth to Will Drummond that had yet to be plumbed, that the role could have been negotiated differently and more eloquently in another’s hands.
While the rest of the cast were like pawns in Will Drummond’s – Gow’s – story, each actor brought a warmth and humanness to their interactions with each other. Harry Greenwood’s German accent was marvellous, and his Boy displayed a cheekiness and a promise which I hope we see more of in years to come. Helen Morse as Jeannie, the Mother Courage figure, was strong and fierce, but not without an underlying fragility. Helen Buday’s Gail seemed to be a close cousin of her Anna in Babyteeth. The always strong Anthony Phelan brought a laconic and distinctly Australian flavour to his god-bothering Wally, and provided one of the most eloquent arguments on the content of the Gospels that I have ever seen, in barely any words. Tara Morice, Maggie Dence and Lech Mackiewicz rounded out the cast with honesty, economy and good-humour.
It is Wally’s speech at the end, the Gospel argument that I just mentioned, that has perhaps stuck with me most since I saw Gow’s play; it gives a kind of weight to what I’ve always believed in, and dovetails serendipitously into a book I read once that said a very similar thing in its own beautiful way (except without the religious overtones). “The Kingdom is here, within, said Jesus,” Wally says:
And He only understood at the end. ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ He said on the cross. And no reply came and He realised, as He suffered, there’s no reply because there’s no-one to answer us… The only thing we have is taking care of each other.
I don’t know if I’d call Once In Royal David’s City “beautiful” or say that it’s a beautiful play, because there are bits in it that don’t quite seem to fit right, like jigsaw pieces that have been forced together. Big and small, intimate and epic in a single heartbeat, it ricochets through time and across memories to be about death, Christmas, class, education, politics and art, in so much that plays and theatre and life are all ‘about’ any one thing in particular; it twists and changes and grows on you the more you think about it, long after you’ve left the theatre, and while it wasn’t the play I was expecting, I suppose it kind of is beautiful in its own way, the same way that you learn to stop worrying and love the world you live in because the other way lies in darkness and shadow and they are no places for the living.

Theatre playlist: 8. Once In Royal David’s City, Cambridge Trinity College Choir

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