Sunday, June 4, 2023



Do Not Go Gentle by Patricia Cornelius.

Directed by Paige Rattray. Assistant director Bruce Spence. Designer Charles Davis. Lighting designer Paul Jackson. Composer and sound designer James Brown. Fight, movement and intimacy director Nigel Poulton. Voice and text coach Charmian Gradwell. Associate voice and text coach Angela Nica Sullen. Sydney Theatre Company. Roslyn Packer Theatre. May 27 – June 17 2023.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


Peter Carroll, Vanessa Downing, Brigid Zengeni, Philip Quast and John Gaden in Do Not Go Gentle

Resplendent in a black gown, Marilyn Richardson’s angel-voiced Verdi aria sweeps across the icy landscape of Charles Davis’s design for director Paige Rattray’s incandescent  Sydney Theatre Company production of playwright Patricia Cornelius’s Do Not Go Gentle. Behind the glacial formations a wall slides open to reveal five figures outlined by the windy gusts of snow in the freezing terrain of Antarctica. They are soon distinguishable as Robert Scott, and the four companions of his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of 1912 to reach the South Pole. The visionary heroic leader played with monumental ardour by Philip Quast is accompanied  by a grumpy Evans (Peter Carroll), a cheerful and optimistic Wilson (Vanessa Downing) a verbose and intellectual Oates (John Gaden) and  a rather obstreperous Bowers ( Brigid Zengeni ). As they enter onto the stage we are aware that they are the aged personifications of the real members of the expedition who died during their quest to beat Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. Playwright Patricia Cornelius’s superbly crafted drama conceives Scott’s final expedition as a metaphor for aging with all its afflictions. As the team succumbs to frostbite, delirium, disorientation, and disillusionment, Dylan Thomas’s  “Rage against the dying of the light assumes a cry for resistance to regret and defiant resilience and we are left at the end of the play with Gaden’s poignant and powerful  rendition of Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night., the abyss of death.

 Marilyn Richardson in Do Not Go Gentle
 Cornelius’s play is not merely an account of Scott’s expedition, although she draws inspiration from this epic historical event to embrace the vast landscape of the human experience. From the very outset her characters appear archetypal. Rattray has cast against gender in the cases of Downing’s optimist and Zengeni’s pessimistic realist. It is immaterial in the wider context of the universal character of the human condition. Davis’s design lends a hyperreal aspect to the costuming and at one point large sleeping bags descend to envelop the five explorers who then reflect on their personal circumstance in a Beckett like conversation reminiscent of End Game or Play. If one is searching for a meaning to Cornelius’s Do Not Go Gentle it is simply about life’s complex panorama.

Woven through the play Cornelius introduces contemporary scenes that mirror the dying light of Scott’s final assault on the South Pole. Driven from her home Maria (Richardson in an amazing character transformation) grapples desperately with the loss of identity. Lost in the cruel fog of dementia a woman (Zengeni) fears the approaches of her husband Alex, played with painful realization of his wife’s condition by Josh McConville. McConville also plays a man beast, Nature’s noble savage as Evans desperately searches for enlightenment. Regret assumes the potency of unintended loss in a scene between a father Scot (Gaden) and his Vietnam veteran son, who committed suicide. Finally we witness a husband’s discovery of his wife in bed with another patient in a dementia ward. In a deliciously mischievous scene Downing’s Wilson and Quast’s Scott indulge their sexual pleasures with the impetuous abandonment of youth. 

Vanessa Downing, Marilyn Richardson and Brigid Zengeni

If all the world’s a stage then the Roslyn Packer stage has become a terrain for Cornelius’s exploration of all the world. Davis’s set, Paul Jackson’s atmospheric lighting design and James Brown’s evocative composition and sound design capture perfectly in Rattray’s spellbinding direction the blizzard of dementia, the icy frostbite of fear, the conquest of courage and the raw wilderness of regret at a goal not reached or a life not lived to the full. Cornelius reminds us that life is to be lived to the full with all its triumphs and tribulations. Do Not Go Gentle is not only a play for our time, especially now as we emerge from the pandemic but are still within its grasp. It is a play for all time, a brilliantly conceived drama, directed with superb insight by Rattray and assistant director and veteran actor Bruce Spence and played by a stellar cast of Australia’s finest. The Sydney Theatre Company is to be highly commended for bringing this pertinent and vitally important work to the mainstage. It is one of the most significant plays of the century. Our population is living longer and Cornelius reminds us that, like Wilson in her play, we are invited to face the future without regret and with courage and optimism.  Do Not Go Gentle is not to be missed. It is theatre at its very best. It holds the mirror up to nature and teaches us to be true to oneself. 

Photos by Prudence Upton