With the illustrious playwright ensconced just down the road at QTC, it’s a courageous amateur company that has a stab at his most awarded play, Away. First performed in 1986, the play has won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the Sydney Theatre Critic’s Circle Award, an AWGIE for best play, and the Green Room Award.
This isn’t to say, however, that Away hasn’t also proved incredibly popular with audiences. A resident of our high school English syllabi for nearly 10 years, it has been voted Australia’s favourite play numerous times in various newspapers and magazines, and is generally considered to be the best theatrical portrait of Australian life out there, along with Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
On the surface, Away deals with the most familiar of topics: the Australian family holiday. It’s the end of the school year in 1967, and with the prospect of beach and surf, three families are off. Interestingly for us, it’s in more ways than one. Away isn’t only a Christmas break. It’s also the Vietnam war, alienation, family separation, death and what comes after, and freedom to explore life in your own way. Gow cleverly interweaves the best motifs Western literature has to offer from Shakespeare for despair, hope, and survival, with the banal context of camping, fishing, and suburban materialism.
In this production, director Craig Wood shows further courage, and also a background in children’s theatre, by relishing the inclusion of four Midsummer Nights Dream-esque fairies, no less! These fairies do triple duty as meddlesome magic wielders, extra characters as required and stage crew who move the sets between scenes.
The fairies look gorgeous, are quite amusing at times and are obviously having a great time. However, the Shakespearean metaphor quickly becomes overdone and overall the device detracts from the build of the play.
The program notes explain the presence of the fairies as being instrumental to the characters’ progressive “ailing” and “healing”. Apparently, through magical actions (and also those of the focus character Tom) all of the characters undergo a transformation towards being healed.
Unfortunately, emphasis on these elements doesn’t extend far beyond the page. In this production it’s hard to understand why the characters are behaving as they are, even with explanatory monologues included. The actors show ability and give everything they can, but in the absence of strong direction, the characters are often uni-dimensional and unsympathetic. Vital moments are often rushed through or thrown away, and we are left with the impression that little of importance has occurred.
What makes Away such a powerful play is the subtlety with which Gow communicates his most important message: human existence is unreliable, a peculiar mix (like the play itself) of comedy and pathos, everyday life and larger themes. The most important messages are caritas and carpe diem live and love while you can, because life may be shorter than you think.
It may be worth bearing this in mind when considering that this production is two hours long, including a 15-minute interval.
Directed by Craig Wood
Playing until 28 May 2005: Wed-Sat 7.30pm and Tues 24 May 7.30pm