BWW REIVEW: Michael Gow's AWAY Remains Relevant As A Message Of Understanding, Patience, Care And Compassion

BWW REIVEW: Michael Gow's AWAY Remains Relevant As A Message Of Understanding, Patience, Care And Compassion

BWW REIVEW: Michael Gow's AWAY Remains Relevant As A Message Of Understanding, Patience, Care And Compassion

Tuesday 28th February 2017, 6:30pm Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

First performed in 1986, based in 1968, this 2017 interpretation of Michael Gow's snapshot of Australiana, AWAY is kept relevant and fresh under Matthew Lutton's direction for Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre. Whilst the threat of conscription is long gone children are still lost to military efforts, migrants are still regarded with caution, a class society still prevails and medicine still can't save everyone.

The premise of the work, for those who may not have seen the many stagings since its debut at Griffin Theatre in 1986, is based around three families attempting to enjoy the 1968 Christmas holidays. The three families are connected by a high school where Tom (Liam Nunan) and Meg (Naomi Rukavina) both attend, having recently performed in the school's staging of A Midsummer Nights Dream, and where Roy (Glenn Hazeldine) is their Headmaster. Tom and his parents Harry (Wadih Dona) and Vic (Julia Davis) migrated from the UK 8 years prior and live day to day, not daring to dream of a future. Meg's mother Gwen (Heather Mitchell) is a sour, overbearing, uptight, martyr who is countered by Jim (Marco Chiappi), Meg's mild mannered, peacekeeping father. Roy is trying to hold his life together whilst his wife Coral (Natasha Herbert) is suffering from the loss of their son to the Vietnam War, resulting in a disconnection from society and her marriage.

Designer Dale Ferguson has opted for a seemingly simple set inkeeping with the opening scene of the school presentation of A Midsummer Nights Dream where Roy thanks the Parents and Friends for donations, including timber. Shrouded shadows cast by Paul Jackson's lighting, cut timber pillars and chain form the woodlands and a wardrobe serves as a CS Lewis style portal. Jackson's lighting and movement of Ferguson's wardrobe serve as the main transformation from stage to dressing room to domesticity. The timber remains throughout the various families' struggle with coping, whether it be at flashy Gold Coast resort or a beachside caravan park. The only scenic nod to the era comes in the form of the gold lamé drapes indicating the hotel and the simplicity of the wardrobe that used to fill homes before built-ins. Instead, Ferguson uses the costuming to identify the era, but given the tendency for fashions to repeat, this also adds to the idea that there is a timelessness of the work.

Given that Gow bookends the story with Shakespeare plays, Lutton has chosen to highlight the relevance of these, particularly the expression of A Midsummer Nights Dream, within the work which helps reinforce moments of mental turmoil and physical chaos. He keeps Tom on the sidelines of scenes, much like Puck watching events unfold and has infused a dark tone over the work with grotesque donkey skull head pieces becoming a recurring motif of Coral's inner demons. Lutton has also opted to present the work in one sitting, without interval which allows the story to maintain its pace and intensity and provides an interesting challenge of changing the set during the action with a breathtaking reveal.

As Tom, Liam Nunan expresses a wonderful recognisable geekiness bought about by Tom's time spent away from his peers, sick in hospital. On the night reviewed, there was a contingent of high school students in the audience and the interactions between Nunan's Tom and Rukavina's Meg were met with knowing laughter as the student's recognised the awkward flirtatious exchanges. Nunan infuses a gentleness to convey the fact that Tom knows the secret his parents are trying to hide from him and he too wants to ease their pain by keeping them happy despite their concerns that he will be dissatisfied with their meagre camping holiday. He also presents the feeling of urgency that he experience life with a nervous pleading and insistence without pushing him over the line which other presentations have done. Nunan also doubles in the role of Rick, the newly married young man who Coral befriends. Apart from costume changes, Nunan does not overtly differentiate the two characters, retaining an awkwardness and youth for Rick.

Countering Tom's quiet nature, Naomi Rukavina presents the more feisty Meg with a volatility of a teenager fed up with her mother's neurotic temperament. Whilst Tom understands his parents motivations, Meg knows some of her parent's past but does not fully comprehend the gravity of the experience of post WWII poverty and her mother's desire to shield Meg from a similar wanting. Whilst some productions present Meg as a more sheltered milder daughter, Rukavina presents her as more rebellious, willing to push her mother's buttons with a greater bite to her comments. As with Nunan, Rukavina also doubles as Resort guest Leonie. Rukavina presents a distinctly different character for the older woman harbouring her own fears and secrets from the nosey Carol.

Of the Adults, each has their own journey, particularly Natasha Herbert's Coral who really comes into her own from Act II. Her bewildered silent staring and her inner dialogue in Act I comes off a little stilted and not really expressing a woman in trouble and detached from society but rather questioning whether Herbert has stumbled onto the wrong stage. When she returns, promising Roy that she'll be behaved on holiday and interacting, and scaring other hotel guests, Herbert fully conveys Coral's detachment from reality and society. She presents the grieving mother's erratic and forced interaction with a neediness as she attempts to assimilate to society whilst scaring Leonie (Naomi Rukavina) and befriending Rick.

As Coral's husband Roy, Glenn Hazeldine presents the community figure trying to hold it all together and put on a brave face whilst also coming to terms with his own grief. Hazeldine gives the impression that Roy may not be in love with his wife, even if he still cares for her, but is really trying to keep up appearances at work and at the resort. His suggestion that he book Coral in for treatment is presented with a callousness and venom that expresses Roy's concern for his own sanity and image more than his wife's mental health.

Tom's parents Vic and Harry are the calm easy going counter to the rest of the chaos and are presented with a beautiful ease by Julia Davis and Wadih Dona. Maintaining an English accent, they break the stereotype of the English migrant by reinforcing their appreciation of being away from a bleak England that offered them nothing but cramped conditions and enduring poverty. Both capture the playfulness and optimism presented to reassure Tom and also keep themselves motivated. They show that social status isn't necessary for happiness and family time and enjoying the moments they have is more important.

As Meg's parents, Heather Mitchell and Marco Chiappi present the oddest couple of the story with a striking contrast, from how they carry themselves to their characterisation. Mitchell presents the restrained, repressed, and obsessive Gwen with a shrillness and gravity that makes sure that you don't want to cross her whilst expressing her distasteful prejudice at both migrants and the less well off. Her characterisation of the mother trying to make everything perfect but seemingly hindered at every turn by her husband and daughter is recognisable but held from becoming a caricature adding to the humour of the work. As Jim, Chiappi has a wonderfully laid back ease to his delivery and physicality and ensures that the likeable father is seen as the quiet peace within the family of fiery women.

This presentation of AWAY highlights the timeless need for patience, acceptance and understanding that each person we encounter may be dealing with their own personal demons and that we cannot judge or put a value on the importance of one person's struggle against another's. It serves to remind to take joy in the moment and achievements, not matter how small and lastly provides a nostalgic look at how simple life can be. The simplicity of getting in a car and driving and camping in a lean-to tent and enjoying experiencing nature is often overlooked for expensive, flashy holidays, which, as proven by Roy and Coral, won't necessarily satisfy or solve problems.

AWAY

Sydney: Drama Theatre Sydney Opera House

18 February - 25 March 2017

Melbourne: Merlyn Theatre

3 - 28 May 2017

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