The Golden Age
The Peacock Theatre
15 – 30 October
This production is disturbing on a number of levels – many of them just as they should be, but some the fault of an imperfect script.
On one hand, I wholeheartedly recommend that you get along to the show. It deserves support: it is challenging and worthwhile, and performed with strength and commitment. Set primarily in Tasmania during the Second World War, the play has at its heart the fate of an isolated, perhaps genetically compromised, tribe discovered in the wilderness by two young men struggling with their own place in Australia at this point in history; Louis Nowra’s preoccupation with ‘otherness’ is evident.
Despite its powerful choices and intentions, I find the script profoundly problematic. It is structurally awkward and textually clumsy. Written in the mid-eighties, its commentary on Australianness has dated and now lacks subtlety. The play ambitiously unleashes a multitude of complex issues (language barriers, love, Australians’ settler/indigenous relations, urban vs. non-urban existence, racial purification, disability and mental impairment, the importance of history, cultural authenticity...) but only ever manages to glide over them all, sadly relegating many to the level of self-conscious and yet naive didacticism and cliché. The script’s illustrious history and reception contradict me, but if it were up to me, I’d ask Nowra for a rewrite.
Despite my concerns about the script’s naivety and clumsiness, there are many affecting moments, and director Matthew Wilson has capitalised on these; his cast follow his lead in committing fully to the world of the play. Wilson, as well as directing, is responsible for a moody set and soundscape which (particularly in the first act) create just the right sense of unease.
The scene in which the young men (Campbell McKenzie and Benjamin Winckle) first sit down with the lost tribe, the two cultures observing each other for the first time, is captivating; this is exemplified in Bryony Geeves’s nuanced and remarkably genuine facial expressions as the intense, perceptive Betsheb. McKenzie and Geeves sensitively navigate the relationship between Betsheb and Francis, but even here the gauche dialogue sometimes gets in the way – the most powerful moments are non-verbal.
Other cast members provide strong support – Scott Farrow sustains a remarkable physical energy as Stef, and Peter Reardon’s unassuming work in dual roles as both Melorne (in the tribe) and Dr Archer earns a genuine empathy. All the others are capable but barely given a chance to move beyond competency, thanks to the epic scope of the script. Unfortunately, there is an inordinate amount of action taking place on the floor – restricted viewing for the vast majority of an audience in this particular theatre – which hinders engagement.
Would this company and cast have been better served by a different script? I think so. Could the script be better served by a different interpretation? Perhaps (although I haven’t seen it happen). Have Old Nick produced something valuable, regardless? I think so.