The late Patrick White is the only Australian to date to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1963, White’s A Cheery Soul, said to be his favourite of his own works, was staged for the first time by the Union Theatre Repertory Company in Melbourne. More than half a century later, this highly acclaimed piece – now considered an Australian classic – is closing Sydney Theatre Company’s 2018 season, with a brand new production by STC Artistic Director, Kip Williams.
In A Cheery Soul, White tells a story set in 1959 in the fictional Australian suburb of Sarsaparilla, which has a highly conservative, Christian and conformist community. Miss Docker (Sarah Peirse) is a 60-year-old woman facing the prospect of homelessness. Enter middle-aged couple Mr and Mrs Custance (Anthony Taufa and Anita Hegh). Mr Custance is a bank teller, the archetypal household breadwinner, and Mrs Custance is a housewife. They’re childless and live a comfortable suburban life. But Mrs Custance feels compelled to prove her altruistic nature by offering Miss Docker the verandah room in the couple’s home.
Moments after Miss Docker’s arrival at the Custance home, with furniture in tow, it becomes clear she will quickly upheave the harmonious household. While she’s a well-intentioned person defined by an indomitable spirit and possesses a relentless determination to help people, she speaks frankly to a fault and easily alienates those around her (to use White’s words, Miss Docker embodies “the destructive power of good”.) It’s not long before the Custances decide they can take no more and book Miss Docker into the Sundown Home for old people.
But there, too, the same qualities that caused the Custances to reject Miss Docker become a barrier between her and the other residents. On one occasion, she finds that a group has snuck out of the home to attend Bible class without her. Later, her forthright criticism of Reverend Wakeman’s (Brandon McClelland) weekly sermons becomes his unravelling and Miss Docker even finds herself deliberately excluded from the funeral of a man to whom she had provided care in his final days.
While Miss Docker finds herself ostracised as a result of her own insensitive behaviour, that collective shunning is also demonstrative of a hypocritical and repressed community that has no interest in wrestling with the truths highlighted by her words. What values do the members of this community actually live by? As the piece progresses, White’s sharp and dark satirical text exposes the township of Sarsaparilla as speciously ‘good’.
With Williams at the helm, A Cheery Soul has returned to life in a vibrant filmic and beautifully-performed production that is both poignant and provocative, challenging us all to consider whether we practise what we preach. Williams succeeds in ensuring that the surreal feel of the world into which we are drawn escalates as it does in White’s text. Williams, video and sound designer David Bergman and set designer Elizabeth Gadsby have meaningfully incorporated live video content into proceedings as a way of attempting to catch glimpses of characters’ genuine but suppressed responses. Gadsby’s realisation of 1950s suburbia conjures a sense of a place where the picture perfect aesthetics belie the reality. Similarly, Alice Babidge’s costumes reflect the period and incorporate humour wonderfully (notably in depicting the residents of the Sundown Home for old people).
Leading the cast, Peirse delivers one of the standout performances of the year as the doggedly determined do-gooder. It’s a tough ask playing a person so infuriating as to temper our judgment of those who cast her aside, but who also evokes our sympathy because of the treatment she receives from everyone with whom she interacts. Peirse is perfect in her characterisation of a woman longing to be loved but tone deaf when it comes to understanding her traits that repel. She reinforces here that she’s one of the finest performers today on Australian stages.
Hegh’s Mrs Custance presents just as the character reads in White’s text; desperate to be a model wife and good citizen, she is constantly anxious and acutely self-aware. Taufa convinces as a stereotypical 1950s suburban husband, McClelland’s Reverend Wakeman is palpably exasperated by his inarticulate nature, and Nikki Shiels lends strong support in a number of roles, but particularly as the devoted Mrs Wakeman. This is a cast (also including Emma Harvie, Jay James-Moody, Tara Morice, Monica Sayers, Shari Sebbens and Bruce Spence) of the highest calibre. Collectively, this ensemble assumes over 40 guises in two-and-a-half hours.
While we would like to think we have moved beyond the rife hypocrisies of suburban Australia, A Cheery Soul remains a pertinent cautionary tale about what can happen to those who fall through the cracks and, in this case, our treatment of the elderly. It’s a reminder that everyone needs to feel they are loved and to feel they belong.
A CHEERY SOUL – SEASON DETAILS
Presented by Sydney Theatre Company
Dates: Playing now until 15 December, 2018
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre