BWW REVIEW: Ahead Of Its Time, THE TORRENTS Finally Makes It To The Sydney Stage, 64 Years After It Written.
Australian writer Oriel Gray's Playwright's Advisory Board co-winner for Best Play in 1955, THE TORRENTS, finally gets a Sydney Premiere thanks to Sydney Theatre Company and BLACK SWAN State Theatre Company. Once seen as too progressive to present, this period political comedy still has a relevance in an age when female journalists are still treated as lesser by some, the world is still fighting for sense with regards to sustainability and big business leaders believe they can manipulate the media with money.
THE TORRENTS takes place in the newsroom of the Koolgalla Argus, the local newspaper for the fictional Western Australian Goldfields town of Koolgalla but think potentially Kalgoorlie or Coolgardie, towns supplied with water by C.Y. O'Connor's Goldfields Water Supply Scheme. It shares a timeline as the establishment of the iconic waterline that supplied water from Mundairing Weir just out of Perth to the desert-based mining towns 530 kilometers away with the story taking place in the late 1890's (the project was commissioned in 1896 and completed in 1903). A number of stories run through THE TORRENTS, from young engineer Kingsley's (Luke Carroll) ideas of an irrigation system to provide a future for the mining town when the gold runs out to the seemingly arranged marriage between childhood friends Gwynne (Emily Rose Brennan) and Ben (Gareth Davies), and most significantly, the uproar at the discovery that new journalist JG Milford (Celia Pacquola) is not the man they all expected but rather an independent young woman Jenny. The Argus' Editor Rufus Torrents (Tony Cogin), journalist and supervisor of sorts Jock McDonald (Sam Longley), Print setter Christy (Geoff Kelso) and major investor John Mason (Steve Rodgers) are old school and believe a woman's place is in the home and Jenny's job seems like it is over before it has even begun if not for the support from Rufus' son Ben and, to a lesser degree, teenage apprentice Bernie (Rob Johnson).
Designer Renee Mulder has created a wonderful multi-level representation of a Victorian rural newsroom with high stacks of newspapers filling the extra space of the Drama Theatre's Letter Box stage. Tall arched windows overlook the main shared space whilst a staircase leads up to Rufus' office. Entrances are via a door that leads to the print hall and another that leads into the building's corridors as the Argus was likely to be just one of many offices occupying the grand buildings that line the streets of the Goldrush towns. The natural tones of the timber staircase, window frames and solid furniture work well at giving the work an old world feel of a no-nonsense office and Lucy Birkinshaw's lighting illuminates the space nicely, from sunlight streaming in to focusing attention on the upper office. Mulder's costume design for the men is classic for the era, there is an ill-fitting and somewhat unfinished simplicity to the women's outfits, particularly Gwynne's odd combinations of garments that seems at odds with her position as the daughter of one of the towns successful families.
Whilst Oriel Gray tackled subjects that were considered too controversial for the work to be staged when it was first written the work also poses challenges in the depth of the plotlines and the cumbersome nature of some of the text. At 1 hour, 40 minutes there are parts where the point feels labored and other areas where greater exploration would be appreciated. The prospect of a female that can out write and out organize her male counterparts and make her mark in the male dominated industry feels like it should be a stronger force but instead it feels like Jenny is not really defiantly standing up to Rufus as she seems somewhat resigned to the misogyny and the harassment from Rufus and John respectively. Kingsley's explanation of his agricultural watering scheme feels too detailed, further exacerbated by Carroll's uneasy cadence that is still yet to find a natural flow. The influence that Jenny has on Gwynne also seems underplayed and it is left to a single line to indicate that the women have spent time together making friends and changing Gwynne's views on a woman's worth.
Director Clare Watson's presentation of the work, with the assistance of Dramaturg Virginia Gay and Consultant to Tramaturg Dr Merrilee Moss, at time feels uneven particularly in its presentation of late 19th century Australians. While the Ben, Jenny and Kingsley are forward thinking characters, eventually influencing Gwynne, it feels incongruous to have them all adopt a more contemporary Australian accent rather than any attempt at an older world sound. The older men of the piece and even young Bernie all have a more old-world sound complete with accents from parts of the United Kingdom where all would have migrated from, or at least been the descendants of migrants. It's not plausible that the younger characters would have lost so much of their parent's sound as to have accents from the 21st Century and this poses a jarring distraction to the work particularly when paired with forced physicality that is contrasted with the realistic mannerisms of the older group.
This Co-production of THE TORRENTS is a chance to experience this intriguing near lost play which proves that in many respects the modern world is facing the same issues that Oriel Gray saw back in the 1950's and knew existed half a century before that.