A Cheery Soul by Patrick White. Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, November 5 – December 15, 2018.
Directed by Kip Williams. Starring Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
I hardly know what I can write that will do full justice to this impressive production of A Cheery Soul. Anything I might say would be like the school teacher analysing the poetry out of the poem.
Yet not to write is to fail in my duty. So I must write, just as Miss Docker is compelled to speak her ‘truth’, and beg your forgiveness.
Much drama most people see today, mainly on screen, is written to a formula. True drama is a mystery, created in the imagination – original because it is never formulaic.
Patrick White was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973 “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature”. There’s a mystery in this citation which portends another PhD, but A Cheery Soul was first staged in 1963 and must surely have played its part in that award.
Nobel Prizes are not given for formulaic work, and Kip Williams surely understands that White’s imagination in creating the do-gooder from hell, Miss Docker, must be respected by an imaginative presentation to match White’s invention.
Photos by Daniel Boud
There will be people who dislike the result – like the couple next to me who did not reappear after interval. But I, and all who stayed, became fascinated by the disturbing mix of realism and expressionism, culminating in an entirely unexpected empathy with the loneliness of Miss Docker’s ending.
Sarah Peirse, working so bravely on a two-ring revolve with live video in a remarkable stage design, showed us that behind her insistent domineering goodness which inexplicably set normal people against her, Miss Docker finally understood that she, like all of us, is alone in the universe – when the blue heeler dog, or god, she tried to befriend, pee’d on her skirt.
Peirse thoroughly deserved her extra applause when she stepped forward at curtain call – but then as she brought the whole cast forward, all were equally recognised. The sense of a living organism with Peirse / Miss Docker at the nucleus was palpable.
So there was the mystery of true drama. To show that, though at our core we are alone and ultimately insignificant, as is White’s philosophy, it is ironic that everyone – director and designers, performers and operators, backstage and on stage – must be (and certainly were) a complex cooperative group in which no-one is alone.
I could, of course, write screeds about the significance of the play and how STC has presented it, but the excellent program will do this for you.
Only please read the program only after seeing the show. Predetermined expectations, however correct, will cut back on the surprise element which makes this show dramatically exciting.
To conclude, this production of A Cheery Soul – with its terribly ironic title – is an outstanding achievement by the Sydney Theatre Company.