Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Golden Age by Louis Nowra

Back: Robert Menzies as Melorne, Sarah Peirse as Ayre, Anthony Taufa as Mac.
Front: Liam Nunan as Stef, Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb and Zindzi Okenyo as Angel

The Golden Age by Louis Nowra.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Kip Williams.  Wharf 1, January 20 – February 20, 2016.

Rarriwuy Hick – Betsheb
Remy Hill – Peter Archer / James
Brandon McClelland – Francis
Robert Menzies – William Archer / Melorne
Liam Nunan – Stef / Private Corris
Zindzi Okenyo – Dr Simon / Mary / Angel
Sarah Peirse – Ayre / Mrs Witcombe
Anthony Taufa – Mac / Mr Turner / George Ross MP / German Man
Ursula Yovich – Elizabeth Archer

Designer – David Fleischer; Lighting – Damien Cooper; Composer and sound designer – Max Lyandvert; Dramaturg – Paige Rattray; Voice and text coach – Charmian Gradwell.

Production photos: Lisa Tomasetti

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 27

“Only my younger self could have written a play with such audacity.  Perhaps that’s why I still have a great affection for it.”  So says author Louis Nowra in his program note, and so say I.

Of all Australian plays, this is the one which goes to the heart of being Australian.  We think we are egalitarian – the ‘fair go’ country – and others even tell us we are.  But it’s not true.  It was an audacious act to say this in 1985.  I certainly felt that when I saw an early production by the students of NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) in Sydney, 1986. 

But it needed to be said that treating all kinds of other people truly as equals is not how we commonly behave.  We have to learn from bitter experience what giving a fair go really entails – and by the time we realise, it’s often too late.  Irreparable damage has already been done.

Mind you, on the Q&A program on Monday night, February 1, 2016, the various Australians of the Year gave us new hope.   [www.abc.net.au / iview, available until 10.40pm on 15 February 2016]

There has been considerable argument about the state of Australian theatre, in recent years.  One important question has been why Australian plays of the past have not become essential to the programming, especially of the major companies.  Sydney Theatre Company’s decision to present this play, absolutely necessary to Australians’ understanding of ourselves, is to be commended, and I hope it will be the beginning of an established tradition.

The equivalent is for British theatres to stage George Bernard Shaw, or Americans to revive the early Arthur Miller.  In Australia, for good reasons, we have always tried to cover the field of theatre from around the world, but it is now time to do this without losing our own culture.  To not regularly program, say (among many others) Dorothy Hewett, David Williamson, Alex Buzo, Alma de Groen, and not to keep adding to the canon the newer great writers (like Andrew Bovell) as they appear and become established, would smack too much of cultural cringe.  Louis Nowra could not possibly be left off any sensible list when you consider at least Cosi, Inner Voices, Radiance, Summer of the Aliens and of course, The Golden Age.

Importantly, the casting of this production of The Golden Age makes a symbolic point which parallels the essence of the play.  None of the characters as written are Indigenous Australians, yet today the cast can naturally include actors from a range of Indigenous and other backgrounds, thoroughly suited to their roles and who perform to the highest standards – as we would nowadays automatically expect from not only the Sydney Theatre Company but virtually all levels of theatre groups in Australia.

Of course the quality of the acting – and this means of the directing and dramaturgy in the rehearsal process – is crucial to the impact of the play.  I found my emotional response to the different elements of the story – the middle class doctor’s family in Hobart, the newly discovered group left isolated for nearly a century at the site in the deep Tasmanian bush of a briefly extant gold mine of the 1850s, the poor working class existence of Francis’ family in 1930’s Melbourne, the awful war experience for Francis in Berlin, and the terrible treatment of Betsheb and her family in the New Norfolk insane asylum – was lifted in hope and dashed in despair. 

The great quality of Nowra’s text is that the big issues of violence against people’s right to independence and dignity in life, at the individual and international level, are not dealt with through intellectualised argument.  Where Francis or Dr Archer raise the issues, it is always in the context of experience with which we identify and in which we feel how they feel. To achieve this is a mark of great acting of an audacious text.

So the 2016 The Golden Age is not to be missed.  The ending proved the point for me, when instead of ecstatic theatrical applause which seems to have become a habit of audiences, Betsheb’s quiet singing, her understanding now so limited by electric shock treatment, and Francis’ wondering if what Peter Archer had said as he left them alone together in the bush clearing might really be the truth, made our sense of the tragic mood deepen.  The text:

BETSHEB: [softly, singing]
        Rain, rain go thy way,
        Come a-back ne’er a day.

PETER: Goodbye, Betsheb

        She pays no attention.

She lives in a world of her own.  You know that.  She destroyed my father [Dr Archer] just as she’ll destroy you.  You have done the wrong thing.

FRANCIS: Maybe I have; I don’t know.  But she’s all I’ve got to believe in.

PETER: Goodbye.

FRANCIS nods a ‘Goodbye’.  PETER departs.  Silence.  BETSHEB continues to sing softly to herself.

FRANCIS: Betsheb? Betsheb?

BETSHEB, immersed in her own world, doesn’t answer.  FRANCIS sits down away from her and wonders if PETER is right.  BETSHEB laughs to herself.  After a time she turns around and notices FRANCIS: a lonely, confused figure.  She stares at him and, almost as if he has heard his name, he turns and looks at her.  She smiles across the gulf that separates them.

BETSHEB: Nowt more outcastin’.

The lights fade slowly to blackout.
Copyright © Louis Nowra 1985
Currency Press, Sydney
Revised edition 1989
Electronic edition 2012

At this matinee, at four in the afternoon, the applause began tentatively, and remained muted, but insistent, through two call backs for the actors before the houselights came up slowly.  I can still feel the beginning of tears even as I write this several days later.


Anthony Taufa as George Ross MP, Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb,
Brandon McClelland as Francis and Robert Menzies as Dr William Archer

But the set design worried me, though perhaps only for me as a longtime bushwalker who knows the Tasmanian dense ancient forests from the inside.

Being nostalgic, I found the design in the photos below lost what for me is an essential element of the play being set in Tasmania.  Where is the wall of greenery surrounding even the Archer’s home and the New Norfolk Asylum, as well as the ‘clearing’ as Nowra describes the bush location?

Sarah Peirse as Ayre

Liam Nunan as Stef, Brandon McClelland as Francis and Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb

As I saw it, the contrast between the absolute fecundity of the Tasmanian bush landscape and the sterility of the treatment of Ayre, Betsheb and their little lost community, as well as of Francis’ mother’s death and the war scenes in Berlin: that contrast made the point about what Australia has to offer, that the conventional and official world has forgotten.

Oddly enough, in the photo below, the set for the NIDA students’ production looks much more conventional than the modern style.

Louis Nowra edited by Veronica Kelly
Australian Playwrights
Monograph Series edited by Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt
Published by Rodopi, Amsterdam 1987
But it was the combination of Grecian columns and the beautiful bush landscape, which could be simply changed by dropping a different backdrop for the funeral and war scenes, with little interruption to the flow of the action on stage, which was all that was needed.  The text and the acting does the rest – though I have to say the lighting and the sound effects for the thunderstorms and the war scenes in 2016 were terrific, almost literally, compared with 30 years ago’s technology.

The mound as the central feature of today’s production and the bringing of symbolic trees, fallen bits of ancient European culture, and poles looking rather like traditional Aboriginal spears as the wall of the asylum or of the prison certainly made for a much more active production, rather than one that could concentrate too much on dialogue.  So I think my solution would have been to paint the walls (which look like the interior of an industrial shed) with Tasmanian forest (it could still include its doorways).  A mound in the acting space would still work, but not apparently made of dry earth (loam, as Ayre calls it).  In Tasmania that hill would be pure mud, and impossible to perform on.  Bush litter among button grass clumps would be the way to go, with the occasional tiger snake curled up ready to strike.

That’s my Tasmania!

Rainforest clearing in Pine Valley, Tasmania.
Photo: Meg McKone

Buttongrass plain
Mount Oakleigh from near New Pelion Hut, Tasmania
Photo: Meg McKone