Wait in the lobby after any production of Michael Gow’s Away and you’re bound to hear the word ‘Shakespearean’ come up. It’s the unofficial prefix to the near forty-year old classic, and for good reason.
Gow’s most popular work (and his least favourite) has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean comedy: unrequited love, plays within plays, roaring tempests and idyllic settings. But there’s a tense balancing act happening just under the surface.
For every comedic affectation or moment of wry colonial cringe, there is another fallible character vexed by insecurity, grief and pain. It’s Shakespearean tragedy via Chekhov via Muriel’s Wedding, a quietly devastating portrait of Vietnam-era Australia set against three family holidays in 1967.
This staging from Theatre Works signals the return of the production team behind 2022’s MEDEA: Out of the Mouths of Babes and leans into the show’s Shakespearean resonances. Characters sport Elizabethan bonnets and the ensemble cast (a selection of energetic high schoolers from CollArts) are Smurf-like faeries in blue paint.
It’s a playful production with a youthful charm; a mix of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Strictly Ballroom with energy and heart in spades. But it too often sacrifices characterisation at the feet of spectacle. Impressive technical flourishes and directorial gimmicks struggle to balance the show’s tense style, making it difficult for us to connect to each character. Still, this production should be applauded for its ambition, and there are occasional glimpses of genius throughout.
High schooler, Tom (Rupert Bevan) is terminally ill and, with his parents, Harry (Iopu Auva’a) and Vic (Stefanie Falasca), has decided to head up the coast for the Christmas break. Meanwhile, his middle-class crush Meg (Cait Spiker) and her parents, Jim (Justin Hosking) and Gwen (Eleanor Howlett) are headed to a more expensive coastal camping ground further up; and struggling couple Coral (Linda Cookson) and Roy (Stephen Tall) are off to the Gold Coast (!) in a last-ditch effort to save their marriage after losing their son in the Vietnam War.
Set and Costume design by Greg Carroll is a stand out. Wooden ghost gums and a hanging full moon are charming evocations of a high school drama production. A silk curtain that coils and flicks at the back of the stage becomes an elegant representation of a summer tempest, and rose petals falling behind a transparent scrim bring an alluringly epic quality to the show’s end.
On their own, these bombastic tableaux are evocative. But while they reflect an awareness of Gow’s thematic interests – in performativity, for instance – they don’t say much about any individual character specifically. The same can be said of the Elizabethan costuming that consistently pops up throughout.
Ultimately, it’s a production hindered by choices that are attune to the script’s themes in a general sense but fail to distinguish these choices according to the ways individual characters experience them.
These faults are unhelped by transition issues, line-drops and unclear moments of direct address. Near the show’s end, Tall delivers a soaring vocal performance of Harry Styles’ Sign of the Times, beautifully orchestrated by composer Rachel Lewindon. Tall concludes his number with a powerful top note suddenly interrupted by his returning wife. He walks off stage still in the throes of the final climax of the song.
Moving at a break-neck speed, many transitions feel as if their similarly interrupting scenes. The entire production could do with slowing down, allowing us to sit with these enigmatic choices, technical elements, and the characters that construct them.
Rupert Bevan’s Tom is endearingly awkward. Bevan plays up Tom’s gawkish anachronisms well, adding a refreshing sensitivity to a character that can often be lost to an overly masculine idea of coming-of-age. He particularly shines in Act Two’s campsite performance beside the uproariously funny Linda Cookson as Coral. Yet Bevan has a tendency to overact. His larger-than-life gesticulations and exaggerated anachronisms struggle at times to translate into the Theatre Works space.
Cait Spiker favours a contrasting naturalism as his high school crush, Meg. Spiker’s performance is electric. Her subtle physicality and quietly affecting delivery strike the perfect balance between Gow’s affected style of dialogue and the emotional stakes that undergird it. But beside her, Evans often unhelpfully sticks out.
Eleanor Howlett is a joy to watch as Meg’s mother, Gwen. Her comedic talents in Act One are matched in spades by her turn to the dramatic in Act Two (a turn that the production would do well to allow more space for). Stefanie Falasca delivers a similarly magnetic performance as Tom’s mother, Vic. While Auva’a and Hosking appear a bit wooden initially (Auva’a’s accent is notably inconsistent), they both shine in individual monologues.
Gow’s characters are weird people. They’ll speak in clipped riddles with affected intonations, and their humour is often exaggerated to the point of appearing surreal. But Gow still takes their problems seriously, and their oddities should endear us to them rather than simply entertain.
It’s a misread of the script for any production to play up his comedy – with technical gimmicks or otherwise – at the expense of the reality that informs these individuals and drives their behaviours, no matter how absurd they may seem.
Theatre Works’ Away has bucket-loads of charm and the team behind it continues to improve, but it’s a shame to see them obscure the deeply felt humanity that has distinguished Gow’s tragic play since its premier forty years ago. A tragedy, even.
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Season continues to 22 July 2023
Information and Bookings: www.theatreworks.org.au
Image: Bailey Griffiths and Rupert Bevan in AWAY – photo by Daniel Rabin
Review: Guy Webster