by Michael Gow. Queensland Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia, directed by Geordie Brookman at Canberra Theatre Playhouse, March 16-20 2010. Reviewed March 18.
First the play. Going along with my critic’s monocle firmly screwed in my eye socket was a big mistake. When Alexander the Great conquered the stage as well as the world, I knew the game was up. Michael Gow could see right through me. He’s not the one with the writer’s …., er, um, what? What about me? Leave me alone, Michael, please, stop invading my space.
So when I got home I read Scientific American from cover to cover, but stuff about dark matter didn’t help, especially the article called The Brain’s Dark Energy. “Mysterious brain activity holds clues to disorders and maybe even to consciousness.” I needed sleep. And it came, supported by an after-image of Barbara Lowing’s broad-hipped brilliant yellow dress as Mrs Walkham, Roland Hemming’s warm and perspicacious teacher. I felt just like Chris Pitman looked, scared as the young Roland of his head full of rough-and-tumble images made real, and so grateful for Mrs Walkham’s offer of pencil and paper. Write it all down, she advised, and it will go away. And I slept, but now I must write it down. Just let me put my 3-D glasses on. Thank you.
So, the production. The play is about the nature of playwrighting. When I previously read commentary about what the play is about, my preconceptions leapt in: self-indulgence, incestuous writing about writing, capital R Romanticism (if serious), capital F Farce (if not).
But no, Toy Symphony
is capital O Original. It impresses me in the same way as Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age
did – as a new direction in Australian theatre. It excites me like Andrew Bovell’s Holy Day
, or Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead
. But it sets an additional challenge. Because it is about theatre, the acting style and set design must make this theatre on the night into a symbol of theatre in any time and place. It’s a bit like Chorus Line
being about auditioning for a chorus line, except that Gow works far deeper into the complexity of Roland Hemming’s psychology, builds in theatrical elements which demonstrate how theatre works, and places the Sydney suburb of Como into its real social, historical and even literary context.
Who would have thought the Woronora River had glinted in the eyes of Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore and D.H.Lawrence? Or that Lake Como in Italy was a reminder of home for the Italians who built the railway? Facts and imagination are all intertwined in Roland’s mind, as a child and adult, but how can everything be linked on stage with the clarity which his psychologist Nina (Lizzy Falkland) knows he needs?
The central device is Roland’s rediscovery, in his dead mother’s box of papers, of the play he wrote at the age of 12, which he believed had been destroyed by a vicious school principal and was never staged. One suspects that the young Michael Gow had something like this experience. The set ostensibly is a simple box – an office for the psychologist, or for the principal, or a classroom for Class 5A, or a hospital corridor, or even a seafront walkway where Anton Chekov takes an evening constitutional.
But the box is full of tricks. It’s a three dimensional jack-in-the-box sort of set, where Roland’s characters can enter and exit in highly surprising ways, even reaching the heights of a rocket ship exploding in space. The set demonstrates that theatre is imaginative play, just as real and funny and sad for the adult audience as for the young child. Gow creates the mental gymnastics of Roland’s imagination, and designers Jonathon Oxlade, Nigel Levings (lighting), and Brett Collery (sound) make Roland’s internal world manifest in wood, colour, light and shade, sound and silence.
Director Geordie Brookman takes up the same jack-in-the-box style in the way lines are delivered, actors set body positions, bodies move in the space (Scott Witt consultant), voices are accented (Melissa Agnew consultant), with costume and make-up almost clown-like. But when we see the adult Roland speaking in gaps, looking down and only fleetingly directly at others, moving away from risk, hiding exposed against a blank wall, we feel with him the depth of his childhood experiences. Theatre plays with him as much as he plays with theatre. Only after his rocketship explodes do we see him, visibly in posture and voice, come to a sensible understanding of himself as Chekov quietly and politely walks past.
The actors, Lizzy Falkland, Daniel Mulvihill and Ed Wightman, play a constantly surprising array of roles as Roland remembers his past and experiences his present, while only Mrs Walkham remains a stable point of reference for him. All have clearly understood the discipline and skills needed to exhibit a child’s imaginative play. There is a comic book element which when played in concrete form before our very eyes reveals that being a writer, a playwright especially, is to lead a life of terror.
I would like to thank Michael Gow for his bravery in deciding to stop managing theatre and to go back to creating it despite the risk. The risk was well worth taking. And having written, now once more I shall sleep.