Director Matthew Lutton’s epic, darkly trippy production of Michael Gow’s Away powerfully expands our appreciation of a much-studied modern classic.
Written in a three-week blaze of creativity in 1986, Away is simultaneously one of Australia’s defining dramatic statements and one of its most beloved stories. Few plays written here before or since have managed to blend theatrical inventiveness and popular appeal to quite the same effect.
This Sydney Theatre Company staging also shows how remarkably timeless and plastic the play is. Whether produced in close up, as it was at Griffin in 2006 for its twentieth anniversary, or played on an alienating scale as it is here, Away always has the capacity to move us.
Lutton (with help from choreographer Stephanie Lake) opens with a fragmented, fantastical, almost medieval dumb show version of the high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This isn’t the scrappy reality played to a tinny recording of Mendelssohn, however. This is the Dream as experienced by its Puck, Tom (an excellent Liam Nunan). And what a wild Dream it is.
The magic of the theatre is soon challenged, however. Reality crashes the party in the guise of headmaster Roy (Glenn Hazeldine, who delivers a hilarious mood-killer of a wrap speech), and Gwen (Heather Mitchell), the eagle-eyed mother of Tom’s co-star and love interest Meg (Naomi Rukavina).
Aided by Paul Jackson’s on-display lighting and composer J. David Franzke’s woozy remixes of 1960 party music, Lutton’s production maintains the tension between the fantastical and the prosaic throughout, most notably in a hallucinatory scene that erupts in the Gold Coast Hotel where Roy and his sorrow-stricken wife Coral (Natasha Herbert) are spending a fateful New Year’s Eve.
Spoiler etiquette prevents me from writing much about Lutton and designer Dale Ferguson’s staging of Away’s life-changing tempest. All I can say is that you won’t see it coming and probably haven’t seen anything like it before.
Gow’s women shine brilliantly led by Mitchell as the brittle, neurasthenic Gwen. It can be easy to play a comic hand and present her a suburban gorgon but Mitchell’s portrayal is agonisingly truthful.
Natasha Herbert, with that distinctive voice of hers, is superb as Coral and she makes her journey from despair to acceptance and release the most vibrant strand of the play.
Nunan, who was outstanding in the STC’s The Golden Age in 2016, is terrific as the hungry for life but terminally ill Tom. He has strong support from STC debutante Rukavina. There’s fine work also from Marco Chiappi as Gwen’s recessive husband Jim, and from Julia Davis as Tom’s mum Vic. Wadih Donah’s Harry needs some sharper definition, however.
Played without interval, this is a captivating and very complete production. A play whose appeal for many has been dulled by repeated study is made vivid again.