Summer, 1967. At the end of the school year, three families leave for their holidays, each trying to escape the secrets and fears of their everyday lives. Set against the backdrop of an Australia still reeling from the Vietnam War, Away is a heart-wrenching tale of loss and reconnection.
Written by Michael Gow, Away was premiered in 1986 and has since become an Australian classic, studied by school students and loved by older theatregoers. Despite being over thirty years old and set a full fifty years ago, Away is intimately familiar, a story about people we actually know and relate to.
Three mothers face the loss of their children: one is recovering from her son’s death in Vietnam, another attempts to deal with her son’s terminal illness and the third fights to keep a daughter, set on growing up and moving away, nearer for just a little longer. The families are determined to have a pleasant family holiday, an antidote to the tragedy and sorrow of their everyday lives. Secrets swell and pressure builds up, finally building into a tempest that breaks across the families and brings them coincidentally together at the same beach. Here, finally truths are revealed and human connections discovered.
This production of Away (co-produced by the Sydney Theatre Company and the Malthouse Theatre) is directed by the award winning Matthew Lutton, who is also currently the artistic director of the Malthouse and last year gave us a haunting and highly praised production of Picnic at Hanging Rock. His touch here is just as deft and just as unsettling. Away is as tightly wound, sharply observed and emotionally charged as anything we’ve come to expect from Lutton, a moving and compassionate retelling of a story now decades old.
Lutton leans heavily into the play’s references to Shakespeare. The first scene is an intensely surreal and fast paced rendering of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the fantastical spectres therein are conjured throughout the play, haunting dancers that excite goosebumps. At the play’s climax, Lutton invokes the purging storm from The Tempest, during which the stage is incredibly transformed and the characters moved from one world to another. Finally, he ends with a final scene referencing King Lear and the realisation of our mortal limits. The weaving of Shakespeare throughout is impressively done, never feeling overwrought or at odds with the mundanities of 1960s Australian life.
Despite the almost banal premise, Lutton and his cast approach the play with careful consideration, producing a clarity and vividness of character. Much attention is paid to cadence, to the reality of conversation and argument, and it shows.
The play is told through the eyes of Tom (Liam Nunan), an aspiring actor and the terminally ill son of Vic (played with heartbreaking optimism in the face of disaster by Julia Davis) and Harry (a perfectly real pommy immigrant brought to life by Wadih Donah). Tom stands witness to everything that unfolds on the stage, like an already departed ghost or like Puck or Ariel – otherworldly creatures somehow apart and not apart. He is played with honesty and warmth and is the beating heart around which the other characters move.
Meg (Tom’s friend and crush) is played with charm and a certain lightness by Naomi Rukavina, who is wonderfully endearing and believable in her role as the (slightly) rebellious daughter of Gwen and Jim. Her relationship with her highly-strung mother is entirely real, a fact helped by Heather Mitchell’s nuanced performance as Gwen. Mitchell shows excellent control of her character, balancing her sneering, anal-retentive shrew-like qualities with an undercurrent of anxiety that prevents the character becoming parody. Indeed, one of the most moving moments of the play is when Gwen finally reveals the anxious vulnerability underscoring her actions – the scene is beautifully real.
Another character that veers on parody but is skillfully handled in this performance is the mentally ill Coral, played by Natasha Herbert. Herbert’s Coral wonders the stage and stares blankly at the world, and is played with a subtly and deftness that renders her loss (of her son in the war) as something palpable and real.
Marco Chiappi does an excellent job as Gwen’s loyal, though besieged, husband and Glen Hazeldine as a school principal is brought to vivid life as Coral’s exasperated husband Roy. It is the mothers, however, that steal the show with the intensity of their performances.
Replacing the simple suburbia set of earlier versions, this production of Away is rife with dark spectacle, underscored by an abstract and highly innovative set. Designed by Dale Ferguson, the bold set is remade thrice: first as a stark timber and chain forest, a wardrobe in the middle to serve the three families, second as a shimmery Gold Coast hotel and third and most dramatically, the stage is raised away from the floor to reveal a stark blank whiteness, a new beginning, if you will. Lighting design by Paul Jackson ensures a defined space and focuses the audience’s attention. The effect is truly impressive and is underscored further by J. David Franzke’s sound design which takes much from the ’60s and thrusts it into the contemporary, with hefty emotional weight added as necessary through heavy electronic instrumentation.
Away is a coming of age story about the internal conflict of family life and the external conflict of an Australia trying to find its way again. Feverish and hallucinatory, this production is both original and unsettling, a transportative retelling of an Australian classic that leaves the audience tender.
Director: Matthew Lutton
Starring: Marco Chiappi, Julia Davis, Wadih Dona, Glenn Hazeldine, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell, Liam Nunan, Naomi Rukavina
Set & Costume Designer: Dale Ferguson
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Composer & Sound Designer: J. David Franzke
Choreography: Stephanie Lake
Merlyn Theatre – The Coopers Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Season: 3 – 28 May 2017
Information and Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au