Retro Review (2008): Away by Michael Gow

Away by Australian playwright Michael Gow has been a critical and commercial success since its first production in 1986. The decision for Trinity College Drama Club to tackle this play was admirable and certainly the result was an interesting interpretation with many positive attributes.

The script deals with the fallout of three families during their summer holidays of 1968. They are from three disconnected social classes and backgrounds but are collectively connected through school and the end of year production of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Whilst nominally headed to separate holidays they all end up represented on an idyllic beach where their differences are resolved through shared tragedy. Inter-textual references Shakespearean references run through the structure and content of the play to give a further layer to the writing.

In the program notes the Director Phoebe Taylor discusses the possibility of “many potential” readings of this written text and reveals that the production “played with a few interpretations” of the script. From entering the theatre it was instantly apparent that interesting dramaturgical choices were to mould the production. A key reworking was displacing the piece from the 1960’s and the context of Vietnam War into a timeless non-naturalistic space where Glenn Miller music greeted the audience and characters dressed in current fashions. This decision was perhaps intended to generalise the experience of the families across time, and was an interesting concept – working to mixed degrees.

The set design and construction of Ian McLay, Simon Kennedy and James Ramsay supported this central construct and provided an exceptional adaptable space that allowed a seamless transformation between scenes as well as capturing the timeless non-naturalism. The multi-layered platforms literally became the school play stage; a Gold Coast Resort; a caravan park, and the beautiful beach where the families come together.

Another ‘play with interpretation’ involved a rather unsympathetic representation of Tom’s character. Whilst he was suffering from a terminal cancer of the blood and would normally elicit pathos, the character was emotionally detached and it was left to the mothers of the play to evoke an emotion reaction from the audience. Possibly this could have been in reference to Tom’s role as Puck in the school play or to general teenage disaffection, however whilst appreciating this it did not sit comfortably.

The entire cast put in an enormous amount of work into this production, and it shined through in their delivery of lines and obvious comfort within their performance space. Stella Charls and Grace Davenport especially delivered incredibly moving performances, even as the male characters delivered some of the most personally affecting dialogue. The inexperience of most of the cast compounded the achievement of the production – in that the believability of the characters was sincere, including the only-too-believable unsympathetic ones!

The idea performance within a performance was retained and was used to great effect, highlighting that sticking to traditional interpretations can still illicit strong elements within a production. The idea that a ‘holiday’ can solve everything is still believed and so the play has a contemporary relevance even without deliberately manipulating the dramaturgical constructions.

Where this Trinity production was so successful, was that it made me want to rush out and read Away myself so I could formulate my own reading to compare - and that I think is ultimately what the production intended to provoke.

First review EVER for Union House Theatre > Semester One 2008