Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Aspirations of Daise Morrow

The Aspirations of Daise Morrow – a stage adaptation of the short story Down at the Dump by Patrick White in the collection The Burnt Ones, 1964.

Brink Productions, presented by Far and Away Productions with Canberra International Music Festival at Canberra Theatre Centre, May 1-5, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 1

To the genres ‘art-song’ and ‘art-cinema’ we can now add ‘art-theatre’.  To fully appreciate this concentrated small-scale 80 minute work, you should be familar with Patrick White’s story of two families, Morrow and Whalley, from the right side and the wrong side of the street respectively, on the occasion of the funeral of Mrs Daisy Morrow, sister to Mrs Myrtle Morrow, in the Sarsaparilla cemetery which abuts the Sarsaparilla dump.

On the ‘right’ side, consider White’s writing.  “The procession from Barranugli back to Sarsaparilla was hardly what you would have called a procession: the Reverend Brickle, the Hogben’s Holden, Horrie’s Holden, following the smaller of Jackson’s hearses.  In the circumstances they were doing things cheap – there was no reason for splashing it around.  At Sarsaparilla Mr Gill joined in, sitting high in that old Chev.  It would have been practical, Councillor Hogben sighed, to join the hearse at Sarsaparilla.  Old Gill was only there on account of Daise being his customer for years.  A grocer lacking in enterprise.  Daise had stuck to him, she said, because she liked him.  Well, if that was what you put first, but where did it get you?”

On the ‘wrong’ side, how about this?  “The fact that Whalleys ran a [Ford] Customline as well puzzled more unreasonable minds.  Drawn up amongst the paspalum in front of the Whalleys’ shack, it looked stolen, and almost was – the third payment overdue.  But would slither with ease a little longer to Barranugli, and snooze outside the Northern Hotel.  Lum could have stood all day to admire their own two-tone car.  Or would stretch out inside, his fingers at work on plastic flesh.”

14-year-old Lum, short for William (ie Willum in baby talk) made sure he was called Bill at school.  14-year-old “Meg Hogben and Lummy Whalley did not notice each other even when they looked”.

These snippets ask you to wonder who is thinking aloud?  Some bits seem to be the words of an objective observer; others are Councillor Hogben, about Old Gill or Daise; others by a mixture of observer and Lum, about the Ford Customline.  The whole story is told in this oddly elliptical manner.  I can’t tell from the published program who – but surely including director Chris Drummond – understood the potential for physically presenting the characters on stage, speaking the dialogue White gives them, and the thoughts they have about themselves and others, as well as observations as if from outside the action.

The effect is quite remarkable because it give us all these different angles of perception of the one event – a funeral.  Not only do we shift from character to character, but we shift in time as characters’ memories are stirred. 

Because we are placed on stage, in a circle in quite widely spaced rows, we become part of the theatrical effect, as characters move between and around us and we react to their physical presence – and importantly react emotionally.  Daise’s oration, rising from her own grave, spoken by the actor who also plays Meg, represents the experienced dead passing on a living essence into the young.  Mystical it may be, but this is a powerful point, in the original story and in this performance.

But the ‘art-theatre’ is not all about words.  Music composed and played by the Zephyr Quartet far more than accompanies the text.  The moods created in sound are essential to our reactions and understanding of the story, offering us a sense of the universality of these ordinary lives which, I found, added an extra depth to my reading of the story.  The music literally brought the text and action alive, in keeping with Daise Morrow’s ‘aspirations’.

For me, some aspects of the staging made following the text and action more difficult than it might have been elsewhere, while the music worked a treat.

Acoustics was the main concern.  Friends seated in the inner circle had little trouble hearing the dialogue, while in the outer circles speech not directed towards us was often lost.  This was because the large stage on which we were seated was not designed to enhance voices which could disappear into the wings, the flies, towards backstage or into the auditorum.  At the same time the stage floor, covered in a carpet apparently of living turf, absorbed sound like a sponge. 

Since I had not read the story beforehand, I missed a lot of the detail and was really only able to pick up on the main threads and moods. One answer could have been to mic the actors with surrounding speakers.  Since the piece is really a kind of art installation rather than the normal conventional form of acting out a linear story, issues like where the voice was coming from would not be a problem.  But clarity and details of the words spoken are essential elements, as you realise when you read Patrick White’s densely packed writing.

The casting and the acting were superb.  Rather than playing all the roles with individual actors, the essence of the work was focussed by casting only an Older Man (Paul Blackwell whose Myrtle Hogben was brilliant, alongside Wal Whalley), the Older Woman (Genevieve Picot, essentially as a wonderful Mrs Whalley, who made an authorative observant narrator), a Younger Man (James Smith who did both an excellent Lummy and a tremendously sad Ossie Coogan, as well many other parts) and finally perhaps the most terrific performance by Lucy Lehmann of the poetic Meg Hogben and her Aunt Daisy, in life and death. 

Costume changes, additions and subtractions distinguished the changing characters with a sense of flair; all smoothly done from props corners around the acting space.

Quality was the core element in this work – a model for the new genre of art-theatre.