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Away: Review

Away, STC/Malthouse Theatre, Until May 28

By Michael Gow, Direction: Matthew Lutton, Cast: Marco Chiappi, Julia Davis, Wadih Dona, Glenn Hazeldine, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell, Liam Nunan, Naomi Rukavina, Set and Costume Design: Dale Ferguson, Lighting Design: Paul Jackson, Sound Design: David Franzke, Choreography: Stephanie Lake

★★★★☆

Julia Davis, Marco Chiappi, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell and Glenn Hazeldine - photo PiaJohnson

In thirteen years as a theatre critic, I’ve never seen a production of Michael Gow’s Away. That’s a crime for a play with a reputation as a modern Australian classic – if we don’t stage such works, who will? – and I confess some trepidation at the thought of a first encounter under the auspices of director Matt Lutton, whose monumental imagination for visual theatre is often unmatched by, and can sometimes seem unmoored from, a secure grasp of the verbal aspect of performance craft.

Well, I needn’t have worried. The show is magnificent on every level.

Here, Lutton’s vision thing creates a fever-dream of 60s Australia, an epical frame on a wide brown stage which, paradoxically, invites us to telescope in on intimate, beautifully turned performances. And the acting is sublime, achieving a resonance and theatricality that reminded me strongly of that Twelfth Night Lee Lewis directed some years back, conceived of as a scratch production set in the ashes of the Black Saturday bushfires.

Our theatre might be at its best when it adopts a rough-and-ready attitude to the classics, one that seizes authenticity by surrendering to pretence with a laid-back smile.

True, Patrick White fulminated about amateurism as “the besetting vice of Australian theatre”. In Away, Gow mines an opposite truth. It’s a play that begins, and very movingly ends, with amateur theatre, and the dying boy at its heart – an actor who won’t outlast the humble, naïve beginnings of a career – has a doomed but also a charmed life: one much closer to the love and wonder and sense of discovery we seek to recapture every time we sit down in an auditorium.

Liam Nunan is luminous in the role, from the tentativeness and torment of an adolescent crush opposite Naomi Rukavina’s Meg, to his parting gift – a spell of release from the grief to come. His sprite-like quality’s sharpened by his ten-pound Pom parents (Julia Davis and Wadih Donah), played more as earthy mechanicals, seizing each moment and bravely muddling through.

Liam Nunan photoPiaJohnson

As Meg’s snobbish and controlling mother, Heather Mitchell fills out a frightful, familiar – and hilariously well-observed – suit of armour. Behind the ugliness of her quenchless aspiration, and the misery it consigns her to, lies an abject poverty the latest generation of Australians (who’ve never known recession) can only imagine. The jigsaw of her dysfunctional family is seamlessly completed by delicate and economical portayals from Rukavina and Marco Chiappi.

Glenn Hazeldine is effortlessly amusing as the headmaster and achieves pathos as a small man overwhelmed by the vastness of his wife’s grief. Their son was killed in Vietnam, and Natasha Herbert gives a brilliant fugue of a performance as a woman haunted to the point of dissociation by the death of her child.

That Matt Lutton can nurture acting of this calibre – it’s all so funny and moving and true, and excavates as many troubling as nourishing seams in the Australian psyche – is a credit to him. And the superb design, which evokes a high school production of Shakespeare through a kind of phantasmagorical ballet; glitzy conga lines of 60s revellers; a purging storm (in an arresting, majestic coup de theatre); and a beach scrubbed clean that doubles as a clinical antechamber to death, creatively engages the play’s themes in a way that feels at once timeless and fresh.

Marco Chiappi, Heather Mitchell, Natasha Herbert, Wadhi Dona, Julia Davis & Liam Nunan_photoPiaJohnson

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