Do not go gentle…grapples with existential questions of love, death, loss, happiness and the lust to live life to its fullest.
The intention of former arts broadcaster and writer, Mary Lou Jelbart, who is the founder of fortyfivedownstairs, has been successfully realised in a short space of time and obtained a well deserved reputation as creating a venue that produces a varied range of independent theatre and art space. And it was this that created much enthusiasm amongst the packed audience which greeted opening night of Patricia Cornelius’ avant-garde piece “Do not go gentle….” this weekend.
Cornelius, after all, has been working on this script for six years, including being rewarded as the proud recipient of both the Patrick White playwright’s award and RE Ross Trust Playwright script development award. Cornelius surely felt her work was in safe hands as good friend and experienced director, Julian Meyrick, who has brought two of her pieces to life previously, as well as other works for MTC, STC, and State Theatre of South Australia, was at its creative helm. Not to mention the high calibre and experienced cast that were attracted to this piece and on hand to bring this piece to life.
This metaphoric play focuses on six characters all that are lost – both within themselves and within the world they once knew and felt sure about. Their institutional lives are juxtaposed with the obsession of one, Scott (Rhys McConnochie), who leads them to re-enact the expedition of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill fated journey to the South Pole. During this journey each of the characters finds themself confronting their own problematic realities and disappointments.
What really spoke volumes for this play was the shift of moods that Cornelius had expertly allowed the characters to display, and how well Meyrick had worked with his cast in creating the right shifts and balances of energy and delivery. We shifted seamlessly from an hilarious scene of five, so well staged in sleeping bags, talking about their hopes and dreams to then contrast this with the lost and muddled Bowers (Pamela Rabe) tensely conversing with Paul English (Peter) as her husband – which was both heartbreaking and engaging at the same time.
This kind of affecting drama was subsequently displayed with Oates (Malcolm Robertson) and Paul English (now as his son Alex, an ex-Vietnam vet). The wide space staging allowed the audience to really see the gulf that had developed between this familial unit, and feel the pain of loss and regret from both characters. Suddenly the switches back to humour allowed for the play to move expertly into a different direction – especially when the ever optimistic Wilson (Anne Phelan) and the grumpy Evans (Terry Norris) had their moments. Some of the funniest moments was when Phelan is stripped down to her underwear enjoying the joys of the Antarctic conditions, as well as her exchanges with Scott which seemed to hint at perhaps a more than platonic friendship between the two explorer buddies.
In fact, it is worth noting that many of the lines from the expedition part of the play were based on real diary entries from Scott himself, and one could hear the real shift in his strength and sanity as the voyage went on – especially his resulting depression at not having beat Amundsen to the Pole.
Unfortunately, given McConnochie’s wealth of experience on stage, in film and TV and as former acting head at WAAPA, I had expected more. Although his characterisation of Scott – both as the aged and frustrated old man, and as Scott the expedition leader – was superb, McConnochie often appeared to lose focus within the scene, tripping over his lines, and at two points asked for clarification from the backstage prompter. Hopefully, this opening night hiccup will be smoothed out in subsequent performances as it did detract from the audience’s absorption of the moment and the messages being conveyed.
Overall, the premise of Cornelius’ idea has poetic and affecting merit however, at times the link back to the institutional aspect of the characters’ lives was too esoteric and did not hang well together. This lack of clear linking threads perhaps affected the overall power of the play as it became an experience of really good scenes that were interrupted by a lack of clarity at times, or too far reaching in their links at other times, to be fully realised.
Technically, the show was quote affecting and imaginative. For anyone who has not visited the deep dark dungeon like warehouse space that is fortyfivedownstairs it is certainly worth the experience. The wide open space with its collapsing ceiling on the far right allowed for the characters to embrace their own world of make-believe and to carry us there with them – whether it was to the Pole or the family home.
This space was well utilised by the accomplished hands of Richard Vabre (Lighting Designer) who has designed for MTC, Red Stitch and Malthouse. His eye for creating mood certainly enhanced the words and actions of the players. The eerie greens and evocative blues at times really evoked the sense of isolation, loss and depression – so pertinent to this kind of work. His collaboration with Meyrick in using the backlit are behind the warehouse barred windows worked extremely well to create that sense of loneliness, death and loss.
This was complimented by Irene Vela (music and sound designer) who had worked previously with Cornelius and Meyrick and was well chosen to create the right atmosphere with her haunting music and operatic moments – so well executed by Jan Friedl in the role of the tortured Maria and whose angst and suffering was so well and consistently conveyed and affecting.
“Do not go gentle….” is experimental in many respects, and will not suit all theatre-goers tastes. However, for those that like to ponder the unsaid moments between characters and the symbolic links between historical facts and the links to present day experiences then this may be worth seeing. Hopefully, the overall consistency will improve within the next few shows as theatre of this nature is worth producing and worth seeing as Melbourne needs to maintain its diversified theatre and arts scene. And as Dylan Thomas would have us remember, especially as he wrote the words which are borrowed for the play’s title as he was nearing the end of his own life, age is not something to be sneered at but to be embraced and exalted.
Natasha Boyd began acting and dancing from a very young age, moving onto two Rock Eisteddfods, “The Tempest” and backstage roles whilst at PEGS. After high school, she performed with Melbourne University Theatre, Mount Players Macedon, STAG, and ETC where she played Elaine Navazzo in the 2008 production of Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Recently, she was seen on the Heidelberg stage as Holly in Disclosure and as the Nurse in the VDL nominated play Minefields and Miniskirts at Mt Players. In terms of direction, Natasha directed three shows at Melbourne Uni., including the 1994 entry in the Melbourne Comedy Festival. She moved onto co-writing and co-directing a number of high school musicals where she was a teacher / YLC for 11 years, as well as Michael Frayn’s hilarious play Noises Off. After 18 months on community radio in the Macedon Ranges, she moved back to Melbourne, owing / operating an independent bookstore in Essendon, and co-directed the multi award winning one act play festival circuit last year, loving it so much she decided to do it again this year-and is pleased to say it has been another interesting creative experience.