This visually stunning production is set in the 1950s, in White’s fictional Australian town of Sarsaparilla. Miss Docker, or ‘G’ as she longs to be known among acquaintances, is newly homeless. She takes up residence with Mr and Mrs Custance, who are not so keen to operate on a first name basis.
Miss Docker is relentlessly cheerful, and has oodles of advice for everyone. So much in fact that the Custances guiltily move her on to the Sundown Home for Old People. Miss Docker tears through the sleepy, conservative suburbs, seeking out companionship and a sense of belonging with such zeal that a Vicar finally denounces her ‘militant virtue.’
Patrick White (born in London in 1912), who is the only Australian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote 8 plays, 13 novels, as well as collections of stories, poems, and essays. He studied languages and literature at Cambridge University, and served as an intelligence officer in WW2 before settling in Centennial Park, Sydney.
His first great theatrical success was The Ham Funeral, the script for which had sat dormant for 13 years. A Cheery Soul reportedly became White’s favourite amongst his own works, and has seen a major revival every ten years or so since its first production. Director Kip Williams (Artistic Director STC) notes in the program that although Australia has changed in many ways since 1959, those times inform where we are today.
He describes an unbroken connection between then and now, and discusses the way in which looking at that era through the lens of today will throw up different things from a production in, say, the 90s – which is why it is important to keep such texts alive through new interpretations.
Sarah Peirse is fabulous as Miss Docker. This is a character who wears out her welcome wherever she travels: one of the key hurdles in this performance is not to wear out Miss Docker’s welcome with the audience, which Peirse never does. Brandon McClelland and Anthony Taufa strike just the right balance to keep us laughing yet emotionally engaged and curious.
The staging is at times minimalist, leaving great empty dark spaces for the audience to fill in with their own imaginations. This read as playful to me, as though the audience were invited to participate in the process of creating the world. The imaginations of the characters themselves are explored through the use of live video components, which Williams describes as allowing us to crack even deeper into the subconscious of the characters.
Regardless of whether you appreciate the way in which White departs from naturalism in A Cheery Soul, the great gift of this work lies in the world class insights White offers us into Miss Docker’s experience of life. This is a repressive, middle class, Anglican environment in which all are watched and judged.
It’s a world in which religious faith is crumbling while fear of nuclear annihilation is on the rise. A Cheery Soul explores, inter alia, what it’s really like to live in a nursing home, an environment so many of us are familiar with but hesitate to interrogate. It’s crackling with valuable insights.
The manic energy provided by Miss Docker keeps this very funny production bouncing along. Take a break from the strictures of naturalism and plunge into the imagination of one of the world’s great writers.
A Cheery Soul
Drama Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Tuesday 13 November 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 15 December 2018
Information and Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au
Image: Sarah Peirse stars as Miss Docker in A Cheery Soul – photo by Daniel Boud
Review: Oliver Wakelin