|Liam Nunan as Tom and Naomi Rukavina as Meg|
in Away by Michael Gow
Photo by Prudence Upton
Away by Michael Gow. Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre Production at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, February 18 – March 25, 2017.
Director – Matthew Lutton
Designers: Set – Dale Ferguson; Lighting – Paul Jackson; Composer and Sound – J. David Franzke; Choreography – Stephanie Lake.
Marco Chiappi – Jim; Julia Davis – Vic; Wadih Dona – Harry; Glenn Hazeldine – Roy; Natasha Herbert – Coral; Heather Mitchell – Gwen; Liam Nunan – Tom/Rick; Naomi Rukavina – Meg/Leonie
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Memories are entirely untrustworthy. I saw Away sometime quite early in its history, which began with its first production at the Stables in 1986, directed by Richard Wherrett, but I can’t remember where or when. It certainly was before I began publishing reviews in 1996. Weirdly, all I recall is that I wasn’t very impressed, with vague images of a kind of beachy road movie.
After seeing this production, I now understand the play and why it has become ‘iconic’ Australian theatre. I see, I’m sure, the influence of Richard Wherrett in the writing (considering his production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and remembering a workshop of his which I attended way, way back). Matthew Lutton and, especially, Stephanie Lake, have wiped my false memory, thank goodness.
I wish I had read Wherrett’s introduction to the Currency Press published script in 1988 (why on earth didn’t I?) where he explains the “essential qualities of Away” as “its lyricism, the simplicity of its staging demands, and the economy of its line and form…. While the play begins apparently naturalistically, the ‘away’ to which the three families go for their summer break is a world where anything can happen – a dreamscape (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a sanctuary (as in As You Like It), and a danger zone (as in The Tempest).
Maybe the director of the show I saw previously hadn’t read Wherrett either, or maybe I was unreceptive - not dreamy enough at the time. But I’m very glad indeed to have been taken under Malthouse’s wing and flown away at the Opera House in 2017.
Not that designer Dale Ferguson kept strictly to the notion of a simple stage. It looked that way until the final scene near the idyllic beach accidentally discovered by all three families. Our whole vision was turned upside down as the whole stage – the earthbound world of petty argument, secrets kept and revealed – lifted up its front edge to become a pure unadulterated sky, with a narrow lit doorway upstage centre for entrances – like the eye of the needle to enter heaven.
Yet the choreography of characters extracting the faerie focus from the play of Puck, Oberon, Titania, Bottom and the intoxicated lovers from Shakespeare’s imagination kept us aware of the psychological pitfalls of the human condition. Tom’s cancerous condition means that finally his demand for sexual satisfaction before he dies has to receive the realistic answer “I can’t” from Meg. The adults may have found themselves away for a break on the beach, but boys have to grow up and understand love and the truth of a woman’s reality.
Perhaps years ago I wasn’t ready for that understanding. This is a grown-up production which, through laughter as much as fascinating imagery, makes understanding so much easier.