Michael Gow’s 1986 play Away has become a classic of modern Australian theatre in the subsequent 30-odd years since it first graced the stage at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre. The 1967/8 set story of three families on summer holiday, each with an emotional burden to bear, has become so beloved that revisiting it could be a daunting process. However, this brilliant revival by Director Matthew Lutton, in a co-production between Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company shows no signs of intimidation and does the story utterly enthralling justice.
Thanks to the first staging of this production happening in Sydney, it comes to us fully formed and firing on all cylinders. From the moment the cast glide on stage as characters in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, elegantly executing Stephanie Lake’s charming choreography, the superb performances captivate. Tom (Liam Nunan) and Meg (Naomi Rukavina) have been part of this production of the bard’s work as their end-of-year school production, sparking a romance now spurned by their departure for Christmas holidays.
That split is not an issue for Meg’s strict and irascible mother Gwen (Heather Mitchell) however, who screams and makes a martyr of herself for her daughter and husband Jim (Marco Chiappi). Gwen’s a pretty detestable character, she’s mean to her daughter, deliberating ‘forgetting’ to pack her Christmas gifts in the car for the holiday and doesn’t think Meg should be seeing British immigrant Tom, saying that he and his parents should ‘go back to where they came from’. Mitchell is simply divine as the gloriously grumpy Gwen, spitting out her wicked barbs with gusto before completely losing her cool. Of course, Gwen’s demeanour and sabotaging behaviour hides a deeper hurt and Mitchell is just as affective at portraying these finer moments.
Tom’s parents – Vic (Julia Davis) and Harry (Wadih Dona) – are much more easy-going, positively bubbly in fact. But their happy-go-lucky dispositions are merely masking the painful knowledge that this may be the last summer they get to spend with their only child. Tom has a terminal illness, the fatal nature of which they’re hiding from the boy. However, Tom is quite aware of his situation and thanks to the suggestions of his doctor, decides to try to take things to the next level when the two families find themselves on the same beach and he and Meg have an opportunity to spend some time alone. Nunan as Tom moves stylishly from enthusiastic schoolkid to desperately self-aware young adult in a brilliant performance. Rukavina’s Meg is wonderfully stoic.
Also on holiday are school principal Roy (Glenn Hazeldine) and his fragile wife Coral (Natasha Herbert). They’re staying at a flashy resort in Queensland filled with many other couples with which to mix and mingle over dinner and dancing in a delightfully 60s way. Roy and Coral lost their conscripted son in the Vietnam War and Roy is hoping that the distraction will help mend Coral’s broken psyche. Hazeldine is a wonderfully maladroit headmaster and his portrayal of Roy’s equally inept attempts at salving his wife’s heartbreak are a perfect reflection of the period. Herbert gives a virtuoso performance as the mentally wounded mother who is trying to reconcile losing her son against the ‘greater good’ and looking in all the wrong places for a way to numb the pain.
Design elements of this production are also superb, particularly J. David Franzke’s compositions and sound design of lingering 60s tunes. Combined with Dale Ferguson’s spot-on costume designs, it creates a feeling of nostalgia for the era, even if you didn’t live through it. Ferguson has also created a spectacularly extravagant, yet highly effective, symbolic set design that stuns in its epic nature.
Thanks to Lutton’s suitably splendid interpretation of Gow’s masterpiece, I would not be surprised if a new wave of amateur and professional productions of Away are roused into life.