The Aspirations of Daise Morrow.
A stage adaptation of Patrick White’s Down At The Dump.Directed by Chris Drummond.Set and costume designer. Michael Hankin. Lighting Designer. Nigel Levings. Musical Director Hilary Kleinig. Composers. Belinda Gehlert, Hilary Kleinig, Jason Thomas, Emily Tulloch. Tour Producer. Lee-Anne Donnolley. Stage Manager. Francoise Piron. Company Manager. Suzanne Critchley. Wardrobe/Costumes Emma Brockliss. Scenic Artists. Wendy Todd, Michelle Delaney. Canberra Theatre Centre and Far Away Productions with Canberra International Music Festival and Brink Productions. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. May 1-5. 2018
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
|The cast of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow. Photo: Davbid James McCarthy
Brink Production’s “theatricalized” adaptation of Patrick White’s short story Down at the Dump entices audiences into a landscape of visual and aural mastery. Michael Hankin’s visceral design with its coiled pattern of wooden chairs revolving around a central funeral site conjures the aesthetic representation of the never ending cycle of life, leading not towards, but spanning out from the source of death. Patches of grass, clinging to dry leaves along the trails of barren earth beneath a canopy of dry colored brown canvas conjure the familiar country on which the Hogben and Whalley families live and eke out their days – the Whalleys as Junk deaers and the Hogbens as the relatives of the deceased Daisie Morrow, a woman of independent spirit, throwing conformity to the wind and love wherever she may find it – in the arms of Jack Cunninham, seeking consolation for the burden of being married to an invalid wife, or the old derelict Ossie Coogan.
|Paul Blackwell as Pa Whalley and Genevieve Picot as Ma WHalley
At the centre of the circular rows of chairs and at the edge of the mound that represents both the funeral site and the symbiosis of life and death sit the four musicians of the Zephyr Quartet, easing their stringed instruments into a symphony of accompaniment to action and atmosphere. Director, Chris Drummond’s inclusion of live music instantly creates a world in which we witness the rivalry between the two families from either side of the street, the distinctive nature of White’s ordinary people in their uniquely confined world and the conquest through the power of love between Lum Whalley (James Smith) and Meg Hogben (Lucy Lehmann)
|Lucy Lehmann as a young Daise Morrow
Daise’s death is the resurrection and the light that incandesces her apirations through the union of the two families. It does not illuminate the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, but it does serve as a hymn to the power of love. As Meg says over Daise’s newly turfed grave,
“Truly, we needn't experience tortures, unless we build chambers in our minds to house instruments of hatred in. Don't you know, my darling creatures, that death isn't death, unless it's the death of love? Love should be the greatest explosion it is reasonable to expect. Which sends us whirling, spinning, creating millions of other worlds. Never destroying.”
Meg speaks with the voice of an author, who knew the cruel hardships of suburban Sarsparilla in the conservative Nineteen Fifties and understood the rigid prejudices and moral strictures of Myrtle Morrow (Paul Blackwell) or the burdens borne by wives and mothers like Mum Whalley (Genevieve Picot). With a superb cast, an outstanding musical accompaniment and a design that conjures the nature of the landscape, the status of the characters and innovative storytelling, Drummond seeks an imaginative device to bring White’s language, themes and characters to life in an immersive and instantly engaging way.
|Lucy Lehmann as Meg Hogben and James Smith as Lum Whalley
And this in part is where director and designer become hoist on their own petard. The decision to place audience and staging entirely on the Playhouse stage and in the round seeks the ideal and intimate relationship between actors and audience, who, seated on the wooden chairs, become attenders at the funeral. The actors assume a variety of roles as they move from one side to another, or pass along the grass between the rows, projecting White’s words to all corners of the stage in an attempt to keep their audience engaged in the narrative. It is a perilous purpose while constantly on the move. It is in the moments of stillness that the character, and the actor, engage most directly and effectively with the audience as in the action on the central mound, the meeting of Lum and Meg, the loving tenderness between Ossie and Daise and Meg’s final oration.
Seated on an uncomfortably hard wooden chair in the last row, I found the centre of attention constantly shifting. The language often washed over me, floating from loudness to virtual inaudibility, so that the adaptation lost the thread of the narrative, however much I strove to connect characters, plot and action. Directors and designers have an obligation to their actors and their audience, and I left the theatre after eighty minutes, impressed by the actors, appreciative of the high production values, occasionally seduced by White’s mastery of words, image and emotion, but ultimately dissatisfied.
I hasten to conclude that friends who sat closer to the centre were thoroughly absorbed and moved by a production that triumphed in its performance and production. For me, Patrick White, Brink’s excellent actors and some members of the audience could have been better served by a directorial concept and design that aspired to reach out to every member of the audience.