‘Night on Bald Mountain’, Patrick White’s experiment with the first Australian tragedy, has a certain reputation or at least this reviewer approached the work with certain expectations.
One of which was the resigned and innately elitist concept that the work was going to be difficult to watch but artistically so in such a way that sacrificing a few hours to tedium in the name of cultural enrichment would be justified and at the very least fodder for latte infused conversation. Oh, the bookclubs that have read, tried to read, and rapidly abandoned the script; the tales of unwatchable productions and pretentious critical autopsies of the work. Sometimes, we soldiers of capital-c Culture need endure to allow capital-A Art to exist. Fortunately, I was very wrong and as soon as the first words were spoken it was obvious that director Matthew Lutton has put forward an engaging and relevant production with a cast of committed performers and crew.
The script is a literary curiosity in that not only is at an experiment in form, the aforementioned foray into the tragic tradition within an Australian context, but Patrick White’s script also has moments of comedy, absurdist theatre, naturalism, and experimental theatre. Through these devices the story explores themes of self, nature, and society (specifically needing to escape society). Although the themes of alienation and self-realisation are universal, there are moments when the theatricality of the script combined with literary narrative techniques open the work to obscurantism. However, the cast and director understand the text and are able to elucidate the humanity and truth in the script to bring the work an immediacy that connects the audience to concepts. This meant that even the experimental psychodrama and expressionistic elements joined the other more accepted traditional elements to form a cohesive experience.
Matthew Lutton directs a nuanced deep reading of the play. His awareness is present throughout the production and never once loses sight of the story he is sharing. There are a lot of ideas flowing through the production and the audience is confidently guided along the paths of the conceptual mountain. The acting is strong, truthful, and emotionally intelligent. Clever use of the stage, emerging from the absolute understanding of the play, means that although there seems to be something happening in every section of the set, the attention is always focussed on the main action with the peripheral events being registered but never intruding.
The cast also displays a comprehension of the text and a dedication to the characters. Outstanding performances by Julie Forsyth, whose textured interpretation of Miss Quodling (a goatkeeper who has shunned human society for the society of goats) includes moments of impeccable comedic insight and heartbreaking emotion, and Peter Carroll, with a performance that brings many dimensions to a character that is easily superficially dismissed, are supported by strong performances from other cast members to bring a depth to the unfolding tragedy and a point of connection with the audience.
Throughout the performance there is a musical accompaniment composed and performed by Ida Dueland Hansen. The sounds were mostly double-bass and voice, with the vocals echoing lines of the play that we had just heard or recalling prior lines. This had the effect of amplifying aspects of the text and in sections became intentionally disorienting so adding a level of disquiet to the performance. These sections were entirely in keeping with the emotional content of the play. At other times the sounds were dirge creating and enhancing the mood. The music was seamlessly incorporated to the point of being another cast member. This music was part of a masterfully fluid sound design by David Franzke. The sound was never overwhelming but created a space for the ideas to play in. This space went from the claustrophobic atmosphere of an inescapable house to the vast, terrifying openness of the bush on the eponymous mountain.
All aspects of this production worked very well together. The lighting designed by Paul Jackson was both a part of and a commentary on the production. For most of the performance the lighting was traditional and sophisticated. When the action on stage started to become ever more symbolist the lighting design met the intensity of the performance becoming bolder and more daring. This illustrates the understanding of the source material from every artist working on this production.
All of these aspects came together on the mountain itself, a fascinating set design from Dale Ferguson. The set was one of intricate simplicity. At once mountain and mansion, the design used suggestion to create space and invite the audience to participate in the stylistic play on stage. The set went from warm and naturalistic, to terrifying and abstract and yet it was one set and it seemed such a considered and appropriate choice.
That combination of the abstract and the concrete is where the strength of the play comes from as well as its daunting legend. The text is rewardingly complex and to negotiate the play we have very knowledgeable guides. By the end of the performance we know the paths and the journey, although very often dark, is enjoyable. The performance respects the audience and everyone involved celebrates the text. Incidentally I hope that anyone studying this play takes the opportunity to see ideas of how it should be performed now but I would also recommend it to anyone who has an interest in theatre. Maybe we can talk about it over lattes sometime.