I Don’t Want to Die in Melbourne

(Sue Benner Theatre)


By Lorna Bol

Profit share – Forgetting of Wisdom Collective

Cast: Kaye Stevenson, Bev Langford, Penny Everingham, Bob Newman

Of course nobody wants to die in Melbourne that’s the main reason for the rush of southern immigrants to Queensland!

But nobody wants to die separated from the people they love best, either, and the theme of this new play, which on the surface deals with the aging process, is really about the power of love.

There’s no doubt that Wilma (Penny Everingham) and Ken (Bob Newman), love their increasingly forgetful mother Nette (Kaye Stevenson), but she has become a problem to herself as well as to them, and like so many well-meaning middle-aged children they want to do the best for everyone. This best doesn’t include having her coming to live with either of them, of course, for that isn’t the modern way, but who wants to put their mother in a nursing home just because she keeps forgetting where her handbag is, and refuses to have deadlocks put on the front door?

It’s the modern middle-class social dilemma, and one of the hardest decisions anyone has to make. People go rapidly downhill in nursing homes, they lose their interest in life and miss their familiar surroundings, but the time does come for anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to die of a heart attack at a respectable age.

With the proportion of seventy-pluses in our society growing rapidly, it’s a subject that theatre and television haven’t yet come to terms with, but the impressive theatre collective, The Forgetting of Wisdom, have clearly struck a chord, for the Sue Benner Theatre (so-named after the retiring GM of Metro Arts) was packed on Saturday night, and that was before any reviews had come out. They weren’t all middle-aged people, either, although from the look of the audience it was clear that the problem of the play was one that many of them would face very soon, or were perhaps facing already, and I was deeply moved by the 60-something woman who had brought her aging mother along to see the show, something I wouldn’t be game to do.

There were also plenty of young people, though, who seemed to appreciate what the play was saying, that just because people get old and doddery, they don’t lose their rights, and that independence can be as fiercely desired by the old as by the young.

It’s called a modern morality play, and so there’s the moral. But a play has to be more than an animated sermon, and it relies on the skill of both playwright and actors to bring it alive as a human drama.

Playwright Lorna Bol has done this in a very subtle way, by giving her characters language so simple that it appears to be clichéd, until you realise that’s how most people do talk to each other. Most people aren’t very articulate, can’t express their deepest needs and thoughts, and most of us skid along the surface of understanding like a gnat on still water, only occasionally breaking the surface.

But when that surface breaks, deep currents can be released, and this is what happens in this play, with a devastating but ultimately satisfactory denouement. I’m not going to reveal the ending, but it justifies the whole play, and lifts it above what could be seen as a bland sociological treatise into a passionate vindication of love and friendship, and it’s going to kick you in the guts.

This kind of script, though, creates a problem for the director. Is he (in this case) going to attempt complete naturalism, so that it becomes like the everyday reality of Home and Away , with an unexpected ending that is absolutely devastating, or should he create the rather stilted unreality of a morality play, with characters playing Everyman-type stereotypes? Director Leo Wockner doesn’t seem to have made his mind up about this or perhaps his four very strong-minded experienced had ideas of their own! because the characterisation treads both sides of this wobbly line.

I hesitate to call Kaye Stevenson and Bev Langford (Nette’s best friend Shirl, whose unappreciative daughter lives in Melbourne) old troupers, because I must admit here to my friendship with both of them, and they’d have me on toast if I dared to brand them thus. They both give real life to their roles as two old widows, who’ve lived side by side in tiny houses since they were new brides, and who have seen their children grow up, their husbands die, their suburb become gentrified and their area more dangerous. Here we don’t have a couple of featureless old biddies, but two feisty women who were feminists long before the term became fashionable. Each is a person in her own right, not just a social worker’s case study; each relies on the other; and each is determined that life in a nursing home (in Nette’s case) or with her daughter in far-away Melbourne (in Shirl’s) is not for her. There comes a time, as Shirl says, when you have to stop being a problem. Physically weak they may be, but mentally they are tougher than their children, and their personal final solution is one we can only applaud.

Penny Everingham and Bob Newman, as Nette’s son and daughter, seem sometimes to be in a different play. Their life clichés are more obvious ones their own children, their upwardly-mobile status, even (although this is barely hinted at) the fact that they’d both come into a lot of money if the old family home were sold. And as characters they aren’t individualised, never hinting at a sub-text to what they say and do, often speaking in the deliberate jerky manner of the 15th century morality play, so that they become Selfish Son and Determined Daughter rather than flesh-and-blood Ken and Wilma.

Whether this is a deliberate ploy on Wockner’s part I’m not sure, to emphasis the generational divide, but for me it made the production unbalanced, and I found the two elderly widows easier to acknowledge as genuine human beings than I did the stereotyped son and daughter.

But in the end, the play’s the thing, and it’s a good play, because it fulfils that ancient requirement of drama, to hold the mirror up to nature but, by reflecting it, to transcend it, rooting the universal in the particular.

It deserves to do well not just in Brisbane, but nationally. But before it travels, which I hope it does, I think the director should make up his mind about what kind of play he is giving us, and somehow achieve a better balance between the generational styles.

Directed by Leo Wockner

Playing until 25 February 2006. Morning matinees Wednesday, Thursday, Friday at 11am; afternoon matinees Saturday 2pm, Sunday 4pm; evenings Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday 8pm.

Duration: 70 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 10th February 2006)