Michael Gow’s Away is something of a mainstay on the high school syllabus, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a student who hasn’t studied it (or at the very least, heard of it), sometime in the past fifteen years or so. Set in the late 1960s, it is a coming-of-age story on both a personal level as well as a cultural and societal level; the Vietnam War is in full-force, conscription is very much a reality, Indigenous Australians were constitutionally recognised, and the women’s rights movement was swiftly gaining momentum. Produced by Sport for Jove in the play’s thirtieth-anniversary year, Gow’s Away here feels old, starts to show its age and, despite some nuanced moments, ultimately fails to live up to its status as a classic.
Essentially a series of vignettes – although there is a narrative progression which runs throughout – Gow’s play follows three families over their Christmas holidays, and details in soft-focus their fears, loves, losses, dreams, and the hurdles they must overcome. Performed in the Seymour Centre’s vast York Theatre, something of Gow’s intimacy is lost even if the humanity at the heart of the story remains.
But memory is a strange thing, as are expectations. Having studied the play at school quite a few years ago, I remembered it as being one of the few texts we studied that I liked outside of the classroom. Thus seeing it on stage (and having sizable expectations of it), I realised it’s a kind of Super 8mm sort of play – that is, we might remember it fondly in hindsight, but its colours were a bit faded, the movements jerky, it’s not as clear or smooth as it was in our memory, and it didn’t hang together that well at all.
There’s a kind of amateurish quality to the production, though I am more than certain it is a deliberate choice by directors Damien Ryan and Samantha Young. Staged on Lucilla Smith’s wooden beach set, there is very much a community theatre feel to the production, from the stiffness of the acting, to the slightly forced nature of some of the performances, to the movement sequences which bordered on interpretive dance. Jonathan Hindmarsh’s costumes firmly locate us in the ‘long summer’ of the late-1960s, while Ben Brockman’s lighting saturates the stage in blue and amber, and perfectly captures the golden Australian sunshine (as well as cleverly simulating the glow of a beach-side bonfire), and Steve Francis’ sound design blends the obligatory Mendelssohn with electric guitars, lush strings, ukulele, and a dash of Holst for the storm sequence. The combined result looks period and feels mostly right (and there are a couple of moments of theatrical magic, such as the storm sequence), but the emotional heart of the play (or the performances) never elevates the play off the page and into the kind of magic we would expect from the company and the playwright.
James Bell brings a goofy teenager-ness to Tom, which nicely plays off Georgia Scott’s strong and sure Meg; there’s a scene late in the play where Tom, embodying a very male point of view he perhaps doesn’t entirely believe, clashes with the fiery defiance of Meg’s ‘modern’ mindset. While the moment jars in the context of the play, it ultimately works to show the changing attitudes between sexes, characters, and times that we still haven’t fully come to terms with yet, fifty-odd years later. Danielle King and Michael Cullen bring a protective fierceness to their portrayal of Tom’s parents, and though they might not have much, there is still a generosity to them which plays in stark contrast to Meg’s parents, particularly her mother Gwen. Berynn Schwerdt’s Jim (Meg’s father) is compassionate if a little gently-spoken, but there’s a fire in him that is not diminished by his continual acquiescence to Gwen’s shrill and too-forceful opinion that what she says is (and must be) right. Angela Bauer’s Coral doesn’t seem terribly real – that is, her characters’ grief is not well defined, or at least its source isn’t made clear – though that is also something I’ve always found rather elliptical in Gow’s play (we know she’s lost a son, and eventually we discover how, but the development and integration of it does the character a disservice). Christopher Tomkinson’s
is avuncular, but there’s also something tender underneath the jocular exterior,
though his treatment of his wife Coral is another sore point (or rather it is a
product of the play’s setting and context). Roy
Producing the play now also throws into light onto the references made within it, and also the context in which the play is set and that in which Gow was writing. The references to the schoolchildren-cum-actors being like ‘the next Chips Rafferty’ feel forced, as though it’s the only point of reference for these characters, and it perhaps highlights the small-mindedness of the characters but also of Australia to that point. It also brings to harsh light the casually sexist and racist remarks which are delivered by the characters without too much of a second thought; it’s chilling to realise that even though we’d like to think we’re different to how we were fifty years ago, we haven’t really changed at all. The sequence where the other long-standing holidayers make their grievances heard reeks of parochialism and seems to confirm the belief in the White Australia Policy which was still very much enforced in the 1960s. It also throws an ugly light on our current treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers, and it’s a bleak truth to realise that those sentiments are still very much alive and kicking in
While the production is timely, and a welcome chance to see this ‘classic’ text revived on its anniversary, it does feel a little older than it should, and while I am certain it is a deliberate choice to play it as though it is by an amateur company (something Sport for Jove are anything but), it ultimately lets the production down and it doesn’t quite recover or sit right.