By Hannie Rayson
Much as I appreciated the opportunity to revisit Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento, presented by the Melbourne based HIT Productions and currently touring Australia, it is always somewhat dispiriting to be part of an audience made up almost entirely of young people who are there because the play is on the English Syllabus.
Such was the composition of the audience on opening night and, as the Arts Victoria-funded tour continues its way around the country through centres such as Nunawading, Echuca, Wangaratta, Gunnedah, Narrabri, Ipswich and Charters Towers (to name but a few of their stops), one can’t help thinking that this may well be a typical audience demographic.
First performed in 1990, Hotel Sorrento is a gift for the English or Drama teacher; it has eight well-balanced roles, not too much bad language, no sex, and it provides great opportunities for heated debates about male chauvinism and Australia’s cultural identity. Set in a sleepy seaside town, it concerns the reunion of three sisters and the effect on their relationship of a semi-autobiographical novel written by the expatriate Meg, who returns from London with her English husband to see if the Australia she has left ten years before has moved on from its entrenched parochialism.
The play also explores issues of loyalty, the nature of female sensibility, the role of the author in society, family relationships and national stereotyping (you can see why teachers love it), but it is hard to get around the fact that the play now seems somewhat dated. The lack of fully-paid-up adults in Thursday night’s audience might be put down to apathy, poor publicity, or the rival attractions of The West Wing on the ABC. It might also be that, since this play has had a number of amateur and professional performances in Brisbane in the last fifteen years, a new production excites less interest.
Certainly it could be argued that the central themes of Australian attitudes to women and the embarrassment of our cultural cringe have been so heavily worked over in literature and in the media in the last decade that most people are thoroughly bored by them. I would guess that it would be hard today to find anyone who cares what expatriates (other than the ever-more-bizarre Germaine) have to say about us, while contemporary feminism has different battles to fight.
However, as a piece of theatre the play works well still, and Rayson has produced four very juicy roles for women and four less well-developed but nicely contrasting roles for men (an old man, a boy, a conservative Englishman and an argumentative left-wing Aussie). The cast is a strong one, most of whom would be well-known to audiences from their television appearances. Outstanding among the women are Jane Nolan as the writer Meg and Beverley Dunn as Marge, the weekend visitor to Sorrento who becomes enchanted both with the place and with Meg’s descriptions of it in her novel.
Beverley Dunn’s stage experience means that her diction, timing and projection are exemplary, enabling her to hold the audience in the difficult opening stages of the play and present her character’s point of view with perfect clarity. In contrast, Kevin Harrington as Dick, the outspoken journalist, is often hard to hear and appears more ineffectual than his role demands. In his arguments with the women he appears shrill rather than overbearing – making it easier for Meg and Marge to make their points count.
Jane Nolan’s Meg is a nicely observed characterisation, convincing us that here is a woman who has spent years living away from home, relishing most of what life in England has to offer yet irritated by its sillier stuffiness. Her relationship with her English husband Edwin is warm and believable, and she is helped in this by a lovely performance from Roger Oakley. Again, Nolan’s beautifully modulated voice, swinging appropriately between Meg’s acquired English intonation and her native Australian tone, is a joy to listen to.
Meg’s sisters, the stay-at-home Hilary and the high-flying advertising executive Pippa, are played by Celia de Burgh and Marcella Russo. De Burgh’s Hilary is a thoughtful and sensitive woman with a delightful relationship with her son (the very talented Jared Daperis). She is the sister who has taken the dead mother’s place, caring for her rough diamond of a father (John Flaus) while her sisters have pursued careers overseas. The question of her sisters’ relationship with her dead husband lies unspoken at the heart of the play, and de Burgh shows us a woman dealing bravely with both loss and suspected betrayal.
Marcella Russo is less successful as Pippa, never convincing us that she is a bright, New York-dwelling career woman who has come home for a flying visit. Rather, she comes across as a smart-mouthed clubber with a hangover who has never moved further from home than St. Kilda. This is not helpful as the plot depends upon a contrast between the lives of Meg and her sisters, who have both fled Australia for supposedly more fulfilling lives overseas.
However, quibbles aside, this is a polished, professional show and it is heartening to see a company such as HIT Productions able to attract well-respected actors to perform around the country in quality plays. The company is committed to taking plays to venues outside of metropolitan centres and will tour seven productions this year. This is the second that has come to Brisbane in 2006 and we should look out for further opportunities to see what they bring our way.
Directed by Bruce Myles
Played Thursday 11, Friday 12, Saturday 13 May, 8pm
Running time: 2 hrs 20 minutes