Twenty years on and still wearing well. How many of us can say that?
But Michael Gow’s Australian classic, Away, is just as relevant as it was in 1986, and although we see it now through a multi-focal lens, its painful truths can still speak to us – that Happy Families are never what they seem, that marriages totter on the brink and often fall over, that young people die and that their elders are as helpless in the face of circumstance as they always have been and ever will be.
The Christmas beach holiday with the kids is part of the white Australian myth. Prawns on the beach for Christmas lunch, lots of lying around and working up a suntan (no fears about skin cancer then), the mating rituals of the young, and the enforced camaraderie of adults thrown together in the caravan park.
But under that cheap and cheerful exterior tragedies are waiting to happen. Young Tom is in temporary remission from leukaemia, his blue-collar Pommy migrant parents Vic and Harry know that he’s going to die soon but don’t want him to know, Tom knows it too but doesn’t want them to know. Everyone is putting on a brave face, determined to enjoy what they know, deep down, will be the last family holiday ever.
And that’s just Family No 1. Meg, in Tom’s class at school, is holidaying at a classier caravan park with her elitist mother Gwen and her down-trodden father Jim. Chance brings the family into contact with Tom’s family, and it seems as if Young Love is about to blossom, to the dismay of Meg’s mother – who is also, shall we say, just a little bit neurotic. Bex powders were invented especially for women like her, as every slight set-back brings on her migraines, and everyone suffers her martyrdom.
Family No 3? Roy, who is Tom and Meg’s headmaster, is trying to keep a stiff upper lip after the death of his only son in Vietnam, as well as preserve the façade that his profession demands, but his wife Coral’s response to the tragedy is to retreat into her shell and ignore the rest of the world.
And Family No 4, Rick and Leonie, are an unhappy young married couple on their honeymoon and out of their social depth in a Gold Coast hotel. (This is the 80’s, after all.)
There’s a pack of diasters waiting to happen, and so they do, with everything you can imagine going wrong, including a cyclone. But it’s an ill wind, as they say, and Families 1 – 3 end up on a beautiful secluded beach, where all wrongs will be righted and there will be a fairy-tale ending, or so it seems. Is it The Tempest all over again, as the references seem to suggest?
‘Fraid not. Although there are reconciliations, young love doesn’t win out, and there are no happy endings, just a coming to terms with the vicissitudes of life. A troubled peace and the knowledge that perhaps love must be sought in unimagined ways is the only comfort Gow has to offer, but it’s an ending more realistic than any 17th century fairy tale.
When it was first produced, Away was a play for its time, but the big question is how it has lasted the distance. The temptation for Michael Gow, who directed as well as wrote the piece, might have been to update it, trying to prove the universal nature of its theme. But he courageously avoided this cop-out, leaving it firmly in its own period, with all the inherent difficulties.
The play was a time-warp even in its own day, for the post-Vietnam references place the action firmly in the 1960s. To begin with, then, there are three time layers – the 1960s, the 1980s and the 2000s – and looking back forty years, the culture of the 1960s is today a big joke, perfect culture-cringe material. The clothes, the hair-do’s, the racism, the class differences, are all things we have outgrown in our own sophisticated era.
Or have we? Are we any better at dealing with death, with social relationships, with grief, with love, than our parents and grandparents were? By distancing the audience from the action through the potential joke of the design – Robert Kemp gets it those costumes just right – Michael Gow makes us work hard to overcome our modern-era prejudices and, with the help of a powerful cast, forces us to look at the characters on their own terms rather than our own. Yes, we may snigger at those dreadful bouffant do’s and hideous house dresses, not to mention the men’s shorter-than-shorts, but these are real people with real problems that can’t be ignored by re-focussing our modern lens. We are forced not just to take them seriously, but to examine our own reactions and to find that we, like them, have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.
The cast of eight acted as a genuine ensemble, with nobody up-staging anyone else. Leon Cain and Francesca Savige as Tom and Meg could be called the young romantic leads, but their problems are no simpler or heart-rending than those of their elders. Sad Roy (Joss McWilliam) trying to hide his own sorrow and save face before the school population, as well as dealing with his wife’s hysteria, is a the model of the emotionally confused 60s man.
Georgina Symes is a sad-but-dippy Coral, turning inwards after the death of her son and breaking Roy’s heart as well as her own; while Harry and Vic (Daniel Murphy and Sue Dwyer) have the cheerful resilience of the British new chums who were the backbone of that particular period of migration, grateful for everything Australia has given them while grieving internally for the fate of their son. Barbara Lowing and Richard Sydenham as Meg’s mother and put-upon father drag us back screaming into the 1960’s. Were we/they really as ghastly as that? These two sharp-edged performers make us believe it, and not just about the 1960s, but today as well. If ever there were a Dreadful Warning, it’s this couple.
So yes, this production really works on three parallel levels, speaking to three generations with equal force. No happy A Midsummer Night’s Dream resolution here, for fairies are spiteful as well as beneficent and, like Fate, they cannot be relied upon to play fair. All we have is the return to equilibrium that we find at the end of King Lear , another framing Shakespearean reference in the play. The loss of children, the breaking up of families, the coming to terms with change, and the inescapable pain of growing up, no matter how old you are – these are the issues the play raises.
It’s like being in a hall of mirrors, looking backward to the past and forward to the future, and realising the sad truth that, in spite of changes in fashion, no generation can escape the faults of its parents. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose , as the old adage has it – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Directed by Michael Gow, designed by Robert Kemp
Playing until 3 June 2006 (Wednesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Tuesdays at 6.30pm, matinees Saturday 2pm, Wednesday 1pm)
Duration : 2 hours, including 20 minute interval