Tuesday, July 25, 2023

On the Beach


On the Beach - by Nevil Shute, adapted for the stage by Tommy Murphy
Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, July 18 – August 12, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 24

Director: Kip Williams
Set Designer: Michael Hankin; Costume Designer: Mel Page
Lighting Designer: Damien Cooper; Composer: Grace Ferguson
Sound Designer: Jessica Dunn; Dramaturg: Ruth Little
Associate Costume Designer: Emma White; Assistant Director: Kenneth Moraleda
Fight & Movement Director: Nigel Poulton; Intimacy Coordinator: Chloë Dallimore
Voice & Accent Coach: Jennifer White

Matthew Backer, Tony Cogin, Michelle Lim Davidson, Emma Diaz, Vanessa Downing, Tai Hara, Genevieve Lee, Ben O’Toole, Contessa Treffone, Kiki Wales, Elijah Williams, Alan Zhu

Opening scene
radiation cloud backdrop


Mary is planting daffodils.
“They should be flowering by the end of August,” Mary said.  “Of course, they won’t be much this year, but they should be lovely next year and the year after. They sort of multiply, you know.”

Moira says:

“Well, of course it’s sensible to put them in.  You’ll see them anyway, and you’ll sort of feel you’ve done something.”

Mary looked at her gratefully.  “Well, that’s what I think.  I mean, I couldn’t bear to – to just stop doing things and do nothing.  You might as well die now and get it over.”

Page 191 On the Beach by Nevil Shute, 1957, available at

In 1961, as the Cuban crisis was developing, I remember talking with my newly arrived English Literature lecturer at Sydney University, Peter Davison – later to become a renowned expert on George Orwell and his novel of the future 1984, and writing in 2020
“starting to teach ‘Scholarship’ to the fourth-year honours class immediately (in which Germaine Greer and Clive James, both far more intellectually distinguished than their alleged teacher, loomed large)”
https://orwellsociety.com/peter-davison-3-meetings-with-remarkable-minds  – about where we would go west of the Blue Mountains to avoid the atom bomb which we seriously expected could be dropped on Sydney.

This novel in its time and Murphy’s stage adaptation in our time is no joke.  By 1963 I was teaching in the Far West at Broken Hill.  

Vladimir Putin has placed his stock of nuclear missiles in Belorus; his mercenaries are training very close to the border with Poland, now patrolled by Polish forces; Ukraine will not give in; and China is vacillating (Shute had China and Russia bombing NATO).  Why would a nuclear World War III  as Shute predicted in 1957 to have happened by 1963, not be in the offing now?  Fortunately for Peter Davison, Germaine Greer, Clive James and me, John F Kennedy ‘quarantined’ Cuba to keep the Russian missiles out and Nikita Khrushchev reached a compromise, as Wikipedia records:

After several days of tense negotiations, an agreement was reached between Kennedy and Khrushchev: publicly, the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement to not invade Cuba again. Secretly, the United States agreed with the Soviets that it would dismantle all of the Jupiter MRBMs which had been deployed to Turkey against the Soviet Union. There has been debate on whether or not Italy was included in the agreement as well. While the Soviets dismantled their missiles, some Soviet bombers remained in Cuba, and the United States kept the naval quarantine in place until November 20, 1962.

In Shute’s novel, the radiation cloud resulting from massive numbers of bombs deployed in his WW III in the northern hemisphere, gradually floats south of the equator.  Mary’s flowers may bloom by the end of August, but the (AUKUS?) submarine surveying the radiation’s progress reckons no-one in Melbourne will be alive to see them by the end of September.  As radiation sickness takes hold, the novel ends as people take pills to ease the pain of dying.

The periscope used under water for safety from radiation cloud
searching for living human activity on sea and onshore

Tommy Murphy has made the dialogue in the play true to the words spoken in the novel,  maintaining the characters as Shute imagined them and tells the story in Melbourne and on the submarine on its impossibly hopeful journeys, switching back and forth in a series of scenes.

Michael Hankin has created a stage design of great flexibility, representing the ever-threatening cloud in a fine white all-encompassing floating material – until the very end.

What would Peter and Mary’s baby daughter, Jennifer, see if it were possible for her to have grown up?  Mary had planted a tree with those flowers.  In Murphy’s final scene a teenage Jennifer slowly approaches, circles and touches the now grown up tree.  We all know that if she were real, she would be entirely alone on the whole of the earth.

The novel’s end is uncompromisingly bleak as Moira, on the beach, “put the tablets in her mouth and swallowed them down with a mouthful of brandy, sitting behind the wheel of her big car.”

The play, however,  leaves us with just a faint hope that we, meaning all of us the whole world over, will not let our children be left alone to die.  It’s a worry, of course, that burning fossil fuels and overheating the earth may cause our demise instead.

But an important aspect of Tommy Murphy’s adaptation is that he allows Kip Williams, as Director, to expand and develop the humour and strength of the characters – especially and very effectively in the women.  The novel is written in a plain narrative style, recording what a character does and what they say.  Shute’s language is descriptive but quite unemotional in effect – I suppose because his purpose in writing is essentially polemical, about the issue.

Williams has turned this into a slightly over-the top style, which to my mind works well to make us understand the anxiety which underlies these characters’ words and behaviour.  

And so I find the staging of On the Beach, while staying true to the novelist’s intention, brings out better our feelings about the stupidity of warfare and the absolute insanity of ultimate war with nuclear weapons.  Not to be missed.