The poetry of age in an uncertain world
- Alison Croggan
- From: The Australian
- August 09, 2010 12:00AM
PATRICIA Cornelius’s award-winning play borrows its title from Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. Perhaps the most beautiful villanelle written in English, Thomas’s poem celebrates the vivid life of old age, pressed hard up against death: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”.
Likewise, Do Not Go Gentle . . . explores the flare of vitality that reaches a desperate intensity in the face of death, through seven characters who live in an old people’s home.
The central character, Scott (Rhys McConnochie), is obsessed with the tragic heroism of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, a race he lost to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and that ultimately cost him his life.
In Cornelius’s hands, this expedition becomes a metaphor for the long defeat that is life itself, moving with a poetic suppleness between entries from Scott’s diary and the mundane details of life in an institution.
She evokes with unsentimental compassion the confusions and longings of old age or, in the case of Bowers (Pamela Rabe), a younger woman suffering from premature Alzheimer’s who doesn’t remember her own husband, of tragic memory loss.
Scott’s story provides a narrative spine from which emerges the stories of the various characters. Most powerfully, this double reality becomes a metaphor for the uncertain world Cornelius’s characters inhabit, with the white wastes of Antarctica a potent image of desolation. Yet, as in Thomas’s poem, the play is primarily a celebration of life. Cornelius’s characters, like the actors who play them, are funny, angry and defiant, and out of the poverties of their situation create a richness that is its own meaning.
Director Julian Meyrick has assembled an extraordinary cast that includes some of the best known names in the business, and the production generates many moments of sheer beauty. The play isn’t wholly successful: there are scenes where the conceit of the double reality isn’t sustained and Cornelius’s poetic language loses its tension.
But for most of its length it makes riveting and moving theatre, from the spine-tingling opening, in which Maria (Jan Friedl) emerges in her dressing-gown and sings a glorious aria.
It recalls Walter Pater’s insistence that all art aspires to the condition of music, yearning towards the mysteries of what can’t be expressed in words, and is as moving an image of mortality as I have seen in the theatre.
Until August 29. Tickets: $45. Bookings: (03) 9662 9966.