Nowra or never: Don’t Look Away’s Inner Voices

First produced in 1977 at the Nimrod (now Belvoir) Downstairs theatre, Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices was written in the middle of the ‘New Wave’ period of Australian playwriting. Loosely defined as the late-1960s to the early-1980s, the ‘New Wave’ had similar flourishes in all other sectors of the performing arts and society, including film, literature, and music, and sought to bring a distinctly Australian sensibility to their work, as well as an experimentalism borrowed from European theatre, in a bid to distinguish themselves from the inherent Britishness that had been previously maintained. By the late 1970s, “the visionary enthusiasm and common sense of purpose that had characterised the New Wave were wearing off,” as John McCallum writes in Belonging. Out of the growing sense of disillusionment with the lack of unifying cohesiveness amongst their output, came Stephen Sewell and Louis Nowra, whose work was more political, less noticeably Australian, and “more cinematic in dramaturgy.” It is from this context, that Inner Voices springs, and Nowra’s interests and influences are as eclectic as his exploitation of genre and style. 
While we may now be open to the definition of what constitutes an Australian play, in the early 1980s it was still a point of contention that a play set overseas was not inherently Australian. Looking at Nowra’s Inner Voices today – forty years after it first appeared, in something of a mainstage revival – we can see that it is very much an Australian play, irrespective of the fact it is set in eighteenth century Russia. “The first of Nowra’s plays to attract wide attention,” Inner Voices is the story of a young prince, Ivan, who has been locked away in a prison for years, knowing only his name. Following the death of his mother Catherine the Great, Ivan is installed as a puppet-tsar by opportunistic advisers who want power for themselves. But as Ivan’s taste for power and savagery grows, so too do the troubles enveloping his kingdom, until Ivan achieves a savage retribution and comes into his own world.

For Nowra, “national history is a distinctly post-colonial one,” writes Veronica Kelly, “where tragedy, romance and face […] collide in magic realist mode; where the inarticulate and marginalised possess strengths inaccessible to their oppressors; and where the traumas of the past erupt in the present to be rehearsed, replayed and refigured.” Inner Voices seems like the perfect example of this concept, and it is thrilling to see it brought to such vivid and intoxicating life in the hands of Phil Rouse and Don’t Look Away. Playing at the Old Fitz theatre, a theatre much the same size as the Nimrod Downstairs theatre where it was first produced, there is something magnetic about this play, about Nowra’s writing, and Rouse’s production, and it makes for a thrilling ninety-minutes.
Rouse gives us a vision of Russia which is cold, dark, and foreboding, haunted by hidden (omniscient) voices and ruthless thuggish soldiers. Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt’s set is a series of platforms and ladders, as grey and dark as the walls of the theatre, constantly changing from cell to guardhouse to tower, inside and out. There’s a kind of punk sensibility to their costumes, combining everything from eighteenth-century-ish finery, jackets and shirts, to sequined dresses, jackboots, berets and sweaters, and sharp suits, and it’s a kaleidoscope of styles which do not seem out of place alongside one another. Sian James-Holland’s lighting is a rhapsody in blue, cold whites, and purples, and is eerie and disconcerting without overstating its simplicity, while Katelyn Shaw’s sound design is both subtle and inyourface, cleverly mixing Ivan’s inner voices with those from the loudspeakers, along with the sounds of the prison, and an eclecticism in music choices that does not seem anachronistic at all.
Rouse’s cast are incredibly strong. Annie Byron’s long-suffering Peter is wickedly funny and subversively vicious, all without barely so much as a sentence passing from her lips. Julian Garner, Francesca Savige, and Nicholas Papademetriou bring individuality to their multiple roles, and imbue their disembodied voices with a disturbing warmth, a hypnotic sense of the familiar even though we know they are pulling Ivan’s strings for someone else’s purpose. Emily Goddard’s Princess and Baby Face, while two very different characters, feel like two halves of the same coin, and there’s a nice juxtaposition in her characters and the way they interact with Ivan. Anthony Gooley’s Mirovich (in a fat-suit half-way to resembling Mr Creosote) is an opportunistic officer who likes nothing more than delegating, eating, drinking, and sleeping, and there’s a dangerous tyranny in his keeping Ivan in the dark, metaphorically and literally, and it’s no surprise when he gets his due. Damien Strouthos’ Ivan is at first like a petulant child, but as Mirovich’s influence takes hold, Ivan becomes violent, brutal, despotic, until he returns to a savage childishness, delighting in the ways he can cause pain; it’s both engrossing and harrowing in a heartbeat.
Veronica Kelly writes that “Nowra’s plays maintain the outsider’s compassion, dark comedy, violence, irony and questioning political vision. ‘Australian culture’ in Nowra’s theatre is a dynamic and richly-textured hybrid of competing stories and styles. The visions of the marginalised, the damaged and the survivor assume disruptive and questioning agency; acting as metamorphic and comic forces in the theatrical transactions between social power and imaginative transformation.”
Like his contemporary Stephen Sewell, Nowra’s writing is impassioned, eclectic, and political, though his critique and commentary is not as blunt as Sewell’s. In Nowra’s plays, he examines what it means to be Australian in every form, as well as “what influences and conditions [affect] life [here],” as John McCallum writes. Like many of his early plays, Inner Voices is a political allegory, about power, influence, brutality, conditioning, and “the effects of dreams, teachings and impositions of power on blank, but always alarmingly-receptive, minds.” It’s timely, and certainly compelling, and though he rhapsodies upon this theme in his later plays, Inner Voices’ youthfulness and dark exuberance is still bewitching and it quickly gets under your skin and fixes you to your seat.

There’s something of Derek Jarman’s wildness and anger in Rouse’s production – in Nowra’s writing as much as in the design, direction and performances – and it is absolutely mesmerising. As government funding and support for the arts in almost every form continues to be cut, it’s in productions like this – that are small in scale, but large in impact – that show just how effective money, time and talent can be used to get the most from limited resources. It seems entirely and urgently appropriate then, that this production is produced by Don’t Look Away. Because it is tsar and away one of the best productions you’ll see this year, and you really shouldn’t miss it at all.

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