Photo by Jeff Busby: Malcolm Robertson, Pamela Rabe, Terry Norris and Anne Phelan
Dylan Thomas’ famous exhortation that old age should burn and rage at close of day is here filled out with a specific and passionate argument by playwright Patricia Cornelius: the rage against the dying of the light is the rage of memory, of memory projected forward into action, into the renewal or reconsideration of old convictions, into reconciliations, into fresh desires, into affirmations, and into new adventures.
This is the much-anticipated premiere production of 2006’s Patrick White Award winner, Do Not Go Gentle. It’s an unflinching, imaginatively drawn, life-and-death scenario, similar in the directness and ardency of its argument to Cornelius’s work with the Melbourne Worker’s Theatre and related in its arrangement to her contribution to Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?
It is a vision of life in an aged-care facility, carefully knit together with an account of Robert Falcon Scott’s journey to the Antarctic Pole, 1910-13. Scott, a British explorer, reached the pole in January 1913 after a debilitating and accident-fraught trek. To his dismay, however, he discovered that his team, which had aimed to be the first to conquer the Earth’s southern-most extreme, had been beaten by the Norwegian explorer Amundsen. On the return journey, Scott and his small crew, physically exhausted and running low on supplies, perished.
(See our interview with Do Not Go Gentle’s director Julian Meyrick for more background.)
Despite the epic implications of the Scott story, Cornelius does not employ the analogy to give her argument a more pleasing poetic blur or to exaggerate the tragedy of old age. She uses it rather to throw the more difficult points of her argument about the vital power of memory into sharper focus. What if all your memories are of failure? What good are memories to those on the brink of death? What good is rage when death is certain regardless? Why torture yourself during your last years with regrets? Why not submit to the comfortable anesthesia of nursing-home routine? And, even more difficult, what hope of raging against the dying of the light is there for those who may be suffering irreversible dementia? How can you rage when you can’t remember your own name? For such heart-breaking cases, aren’t passivity and calmness healthier states than terror and rage? Growing old, as they say, is not easy, and Cornelius is not suggesting that remembering is easy. But, for her elderly explorers, we see that forgetting is death, while memory, whatever the memory, good or ill, is life.
Director Julian Meyrick, like Cornelius, resists the grandiosity of the Antarctic setting, preferring to emphasise its nakedness, giving minimal dressing to the Fortyfive basement, allowing the text to present directly its difficult questions. Where Marg Horwell’s set does asserted itself, with the roof collapsing spectacularly off in one corner, the connections with Antarctica and an aged-care facility are slight. Instead, the image suggests mental decrepitude, of things falling apart and of the world coming down around your ears.
In the interview linked above, Meyrick talks of how the Fortyfive basement’s long stage area, when used in ‘landscape’, allows for a marvellous isolation of figure and long, clean traverses of empty space and the movement of the “figures” across the elongated space is certainly one of the highlights of this production, matching the script’s highly fluid, non-naturalistic narrative movement and amplifying states of isolation, desperation, love, compassion, despair, fear and hate.
On the night, however, the show never properly sustained, except across a few brief scenes, the sublime pitch that is perhaps within its potential. The cast, I think, was not entirely comfortable with the material, especially Rhys McConnochie in the lead as Scott, who not only carries most of the dialogue, but was the last to come on board the project. There are a number of scenes that rely on the rapid juxtaposition of Scott’s Antarctic observations with the more philosophically loaded complaints of his “men”. These scenes, I thought, were weighed down by a lack of verbal fluency and failed to rise to the higher themes. It may also be that the script itself is larded with too much gleaning from Scott’s diary. It will be interesting to hear reports of shows from later in the season as the cast settle into the rhythm of the material.
There were, too, those few brief scenes, interludes almost, where the sublime was present, where Irene Vela’s excellent sound design and Richard Vabre’s suggestive lighting transformed the long Fortyfive space into a vast corridor, crossed by light and shadow, a space like recollection itself, through which danced the figure of Jan Friedl, who–ah! now this was special–with powerfully-delivered operatic arias, did suggest the transcendental life-affirming power of memory.
Do Not Go Gentle … opened at Fortyfivedownstairs on Friday night and stars Paul English, Jan Friedl, Rhys McConnochie, Terry Norris, Anne Phelan, Pamela Rabe and Malcolm Robertson, directed by Julian Meyrick, with a design team including Irine Vela (composer), Marg Horwell (set) and Richard Vabre (lights).
Venue: Fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne 3000
Dates: Friday, 6 August – Sunday, 29 August 2010
Prices: $45 Full / $40 Seniors Card / $37.50 Concession
Booking: Book online here
Production photo by Jeff Busby.