Directed by Damien Ryan and Samantha Young
Written by Michael Gow
June 2, 2016 to June 25, 2016
Sport For Jove was proud to stage one of Australia’s defining works of art on the big stage of the York Theatre. Michael Gow’s Away is an extraordinary and moving story of family, community, awakening and forgiveness.
The 30th Anniversary of this seminal Australian work is marked by a powerful and inventive new production. Michael Gow’s epic and intimate story of family renewal, death and awakening is brought to life with an exceptional ensemble cast, offering theatre goers a must-see experience. The coming of age story of Tom and Meg and their families celebrates a lost time and place in 1960s Australia that still expresses our deepest national, social and personal anxieties today. We are thrilled to present this national treasure in a vibrant new production.
Michael Gow’s Away is a seminal work of the Australian playwrighting canon and as its characters have their own rituals of communing together at school plays or community recitals, for Australian theatre companies and audiences, attending or mounting a production of Away has become its own right of passage. One of the great joys of working on it has been in hearing people’s personal history with the play. Artists and audience alike have shared stories from decades past of moments which made them gasp or simply moments of recognition, of climbing up interminable sand dunes or the comedy found in innocent Australian idioms. The plays wide-ranging resonance comes as no surprise. It combines theatrical largess with a truly authentic capturing of the Australian voice. It is heartfelt and domestic, whilst simultaneously magic and elemental. It has a scale of experience; three families are dealing with the consequence of loss; past, present and future. Whilst other characters orbit around them, clinging onto their own fragile constructions of reality, as the tide threatens to wash it all away.
In considering all this, how do you approach Away today, in its 30th year? Our entry point into this production began with its historical context, Australia 1967. This was a time characterized by great hope and near-revolutionary promise of a more enlightened and inclusive world, and great fear - and not an imaginary fear either, an all-too real cataclysm in South East Asia that was hurting and shaming the global community. It was nothing new, and yet everything new in terms of what it did the mythologies we had always attached to war and the sacrifice of the young. Generations had lived through World Wars and the Great Depression and these events cannot be separated from the action and ideologies Michael Gow is exploring in Away, and he brings them to bear on an era of such extraordinary change and contradiction. On one side of the coin lay the Vietnam War, the mass displacement and resettling of refugees, and on the other such cause for hope, the awakening of the political voice of youth, the 1967 referendum, which passed with an overwhelming majority, the contraceptive pill legalized and the economy growing. The context is imperative to the play as it captures two generations who have radically different understandings of life’s potential. Gow encapsulates the personal experience of growing up, those moments where hope is either lost or bolstered and expresses it through a particular moment in the nation’s cultural climate.
We therefore used this time and place as a compass. We wanted to highlight the generational divide, the rapidly changing norm, the impermanence of possessions, the political tensions and the wonder of being young in a world that offers so many options for what kind of adult you might grow into, or be trapped into growing into. If indeed you get to grow up at all. How do we live up to our parents’ example and how do we equally avoid it?
Gow uses Shakespeare’s Dream and King Lear as gateways in and out of his story. Dream, like Away, traps us inside the confusing labyrinth of sexual awakening and the frightening questions it asks of teenagers, questions they need to solve all on their own. In Dream, the children go away in order to find their way home, and Gow mirrors its theatrical structure too using theatre itself as a restorative force, a play-within-a-play to heal a community – to awake them from a long sleep or a frightening dream and teach them to forgive and to make ‘amends’, as Puck says. Away is very much about awaking and making ‘amends’
Dream is a fairy story, and fairy stories have always been a warning to children, but also to parents about how to raise a child - the terrifying responsibility of looking after what is most vulnerable. Dianne Purkiss, the world’s leading literary authority on fairy culture and historical customs of witchcraft explains the significance to almost every culture that has ever existed of the ‘changeling child’, whose journey of course is at the centre of Shakespeare’s Dream. “The Changeling child is the psychological explanation among parents and ancient communities all over the world for sickness, terminal illness, deformity in their children,” says Purkiss. “The belief that the fairy kingdom has taken the perfect child and replaced it with a damaged one – either as punishment for wrongdoing in the family or because the child was too perfect and meant for greater honours in another world, a spirit world. Behind such belief is a terrible trauma, the fear that to lose our children is the greatest possible failing, to lose ourselves”. Gow draws us into that mythology with the fate of Tom, and the lost child of Roy and Coral, meant for honours in another world and sacrificed for the good of his own country’s “standard of living”. Coral’s repetition of this phrase begins to empty it of its fragile meaning and we recognise the shallowness of war propaganda, as fanciful in its wisdom as the changeling child mythology – we’ve always needed ways to excuse our children’s suffering.
Anna Freud wrote - “We put ourselves in our weakest, most vulnerable state when we have a child because we stake our entire happiness on something so mortal and entirely fragile. We bring great fear and anxiety to our lives, and we do this willingly – for love”. In all three families in Away, Gow explores these fears and maintains the journey of Tom’s fairies throughout the play to keep the Dream alive.
Lear of course also explores the agonising dynamic of child and parent – in particular the gratitude of children for the debts they owe parents, the way parents hold them to those debts, and the way children inevitably rebel against such emotional custody. Gow offers a stunning feminine portrait of it through the family of Gwen, Meg and Jim in Away, while also, (through Roy and Coral, and Vic and Harry), investigating the trauma that defines the end of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy, the death of one’s child. In Tom’s journey, we experience through a young boy rather than an old man, the act of divesting oneself of everything to accept that we truly have nothing, except death. In the process the dying person uses the clarity that comes with such suffering to affect change and healing in others. And Meg teaches us, just as Cordelia and Edgar do in Lear, that in the face of the terrible challenges of living, our only responsibility is to tell the truth.
Gow himself speaks of Away in terms of our relationship to suffering. “Closure is a meaningless word,” he said in an interview at the play’s 20th anniversary. “I don’t think you ever get over loss but you come to accept it, and how you carry the scars defines who you are. We try not to talk about death. We say people ‘pass’. I think kidney stones ‘pass’, we ‘pass’ exams – people ‘die’. We need to face the universe alone in the end. Life is precious because it ends”.
As actors find when rehearsing this great play, so much of the story and the conversation in the room is about the concealing and managing of pain – across all three families. And even the other who individuals in the story, Leonie and Rick on the Gold Coast, carry private and distinctly etched scars that are yet to feel a wound. When we leave them, we are conscious that a terrible secret and as yet unpublished pain is about to break out in their own lives. We wonder what will happen to them next. How will they heal?
“We wear masks pretending there is no pain, but there is, “ Gow has said. The play so humanely and intelligently expresses the precariousness and fragility of life along side its hope of renewal. Every character provides a distinct example of that precariousness: Roy and Coral’s lost child; Tom’s condition, and Harry and Vic’s unmapped response to finding a way forward without ever taking their eyes of the present moment – “we don’t look forward and we don’t look back”; the ‘catastrophist’ Gwen and her long fight to survive, to maintain, to go on, having come from the “rubbish tips” after the war and refusing to let her daughter ever see such an abyss; Rick’s near miss with Vietnam conscription – “it’s a lottery, you see”; Leonie’s papier mache marriage; Meg’s vulnerable and yet demonstrably strong sexuality brought to a dangerous but very human crossroad alone on a NSW beach; our diminutive scale in the face of the nature’s powerful forces; and even the play-within-a-play, The Stranger on the Shore, offers a story of loneliness and drowning, of curses and suffering that finally bring a sea-change to something rich and strange. Gow gives the small human life of every individual such value and recognition.
Away follows the ancient elements of tragedy quite clearly, the power of fate, the trauma passed through the family line, unique but universal questions of moral responsibility, and a great suffering, all of which eventually reach a point of cleansing, in this case perhaps a burning off – a bonfire of renewal. But it also a tragi-comedy, disaster is narrowly averted by most, and delight and laughter characterise the play as strongly as any other feeling.
And of course the power and brutality of nature hangs over Gow’s play as it does over Lear and Dream and so many of Shakespeare’s plays about the unforgiving winds and oceans that can destroy and redeem families. As Miss LaTrobe says in Away, nature’s bewildering force throws into sharp relief ‘man’s’ illusion of being in control, of self-mastery. A great storm forces us to simply accept and recover, to wash ashore and begin again, either rediscovering what we have lost and treasuring it more the second time round or discovering deep truths for the first time. And within that temporary exile brought about by the storm, we are forced to ask ourselves who are we? What empathy is born in us through the act of displacement, stripped of identity and belongings? How do we get home? It is a question Gow may well ask of the country we are living in at this instant. Where is our empathy for those fleeing the storm, where is our instinct for reconciliation and making ‘amends’, do we ourselves need to lose what we hold dear to recognise our greater responsibilities to others? For thousands of years, our great poets have written of exile and what it is get lost in the world, to lose everything, and the unanimous opportunity it has afforded the characters in those poems and plays has been the freedom to debate, argue and thrash out the purpose of life, of society, and wealth, and the customs we take for granted, our spirituality and the rituals that generate our self-worth. Pastoral plays are about exile and suffering and the permission they give us to take stock of our strengths and aberrations and Gow does that in this very Australian story. We may ask ourselves, “What country, friends, is this?”
Away begins as a claustrophobic play of steadily expanding space until we finally get access to the horizon, a chance to reset our compass. Interiors, the darkness of theatres, backstage rooms, and quiet homes at midnight begin to open up to ballrooms, rooftops, caravan parks – but even these places, while larger, are still stifling, claustrophobic, trapping spaces. Gow calls the park ‘Caravan City’ in a brilliant stroke of meaning for the sort of ‘holiday’ these city dwellers have embarked on - a shift from one metropolis to another – makeshift but still populous and frenetic. Then with the storm comes our first glimpse of open space, endlessness, freedom, randomness, beach, sea, sky, nowhere to be, horizons, newness. We wanted to celebrate the size of this play, made a classic by its rare capacity to be performed in intimate spaces and in large theatres. We sought to create a production that expands and contracts like swelling oceans and cycles of life, like the act of going away in order to learn how to come home.
The turn of the year in 1967/68 was one of the most conspicuous moments, (perhaps amid the most conspicuous era), of radical social change in the 20th century, and perhaps in any century. Some trends included:
Passionate political activism among youth; 1968 the watershed year – an “awakening” - young people throughout the world becoming the instruments of social and political change
‘Age of protest’ – the nature of armed conflict in WW1 & 2 sharply contrasted by Vietnam – a changing sensibility about the worth of ‘sacrifice’ and old mythologies about right and wrong in war. Fighting to preserve a way of life or standard of living no longer seen as an accurate depiction or justification for our involvement in the conflict.
Introduction of the Higher School Certificate in 1967 – possibly indicative of an enlightened view of the importance of youth and their place in the world, more tertiary education, rapidly progressive technology, subsequent changes in the age, sex and nature of the workforce. 40 per cent of the Australian population under 21 years of age
Referendum on the indigenous vote succeeds – still no national Bill of Rights in Australia, passionately argued for since 1901 and promised in 1948
Growing political voice for women’s rights, women’s liberation;
Sexuality – ‘the pill’, among the most revolutionising technologies in history
Changing morality, the ‘permissive society’ and sexual liberation brought a freer social vernacular about sex and politics
‘Bex’ powder – “mother’s little helper” - was an unknown but increasingly dangerous addiction among Australian women particularly, represented in this play by Gwen’s drug dependence, only recognised and banned in 1977
Growing belief in a classless, egalitarian society – belied by reality of increasing materialism and the baby-boomer generation’s relationship to ownership of land and property
A cultural trend toward the status / worth of Australian family life partially measured by the cost and destination of our holidays, as much as our homes. An idea Gow explores in his comparison of a holiday in a ‘lean-to’, versus a brand new caravan with all the mod cons, and a plane trip to a flash hotel on the Gold Coast
Immigration – first locally born generation of 10 pound poms coming of age
White Australia Policy still in force, only dismantled in 1973
In December 1967, we ‘lost’ a Prime Minister with the disappearance of Harold Holt, deepening our already well established sense of the vulnerability of the Australian individual in the harsh and unforgiving landscape, a dangerous and forbidding country with a long storytelling heritage of getting ‘lost’
"...an honest portrayal of an honest text, providing the right amount of nostalgia whilst not shying away from the deeper, darker issues."
Alana Kaye | Theatre Now
"...romps and revels with comedy, spectacle and tragedy."
Emily Richardson | Upstaged Reviews
Photography by Marnya Rothe
Amy Usherwood | Leonie/Miss Latrobe/Fairy, Camper, Student
Angela Bauer | Coral
Berynn Schwerdt | Jim
Christopher Stalley | Fairy, Camper, Student
Christopher Tomkinson | Roy
Danielle King | Vic
Eloise Winestock | Fairy, Camper, Student
George Banders | Fairy, Camper, Student
Georgia Scott | Meg
James Bell | Tom/Rick
Lizzie Schebesta | Fairy, Camper, Student
Michael Cullen | Harry
Sarah Woods | Gwen
Anca Frankenhaeuser | Dance Choreography
Benjamin Brockman | Lighting Designer
Bronte Axam | Stage Manager
Damien Ryan | Co-Director
Daniel Barber | Lighting Associate
Jonathan Hindmarsh | Costumer Designer
Katherine Holmes | Assistant Stage Manager
Lauren Holmes | Assistant Stage Manager
Lucilla Smith | Set Designer
Ryan Patrick Devlin | Tech Manager
Samantha Young | Co-Director
Steve Francis | Sound Designer