Queensland Theatre Company & State Theatre Company of South Australia present TOY SYMPHONY by Michael Gow at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane.
TOY SYMPHONY by Michael Gow, glows in my memory from the Belvoir, Company B, production under the direction of Neil Armfield and the luminous performance of Richard Roxburgh as Roland Henning in 2007. So, I was very excited to get to see the play again in a new production. This one under the direction of a relatively new, young director, of growing reputation: Geordie Brookman and with Chris Pitman, a, as before, relatively, young actor seen recently and regularly on our stages.
Two more different experiences of this play, I could not have had. The strength of the writing is reinforced with the different approaches to the text by these directors. Not qualified to declare “greatness” on writers, I do feel, however, after seeing this play again, that it has a possibility of being so, at least, in the Australian canon. The memory of the original production at Belvoir was that of a tour de force of interpretative energy by Richard Roxburgh in a brightly lit space with support from characters and caricatures to humorously examine an artist’s identity and creative problem. It is the dominating joyous explosion of Mr Roxburgh’s relish of the textual opportunities of the character written by Mr Gow, that became a cause celebre in the Sydney Theatre season, that I mostly recall. (Even Mr Roxburgh’s curtain call was boiling with ebullience.) It was hard to get a seat, once the word of mouth spread about, to see this work. Besides, the performance of Mr Roxburgh, I do have memories of the actual play that were more than mildly disturbing, but, these were swept away by the sheer bravura of the performance and production.
Mr Armfield’s production, he, being almost a similarly aged peer of the writer, along with the leading man, I remember, had the gentle nostalgic wryness of older men looking back at their lives, to a time that may have been the cradle of their own creative impulses and the responsible moments for their fateful life choices. There was recognition, warmth, sadness, humour, undoubtedly fear as well, but it all had an air of generous understanding of the predicament of the protagonist, Roland Henning. For although the play deals with the critical experience, for a writer, of “writer’s block” and the disturbing repercussions of that difficulty on that artist’s life, the play was an examination of that awful crisis, involving the terrible confrontation of his (Roland Henning) life habits and experiences through the guided hands of a therapist, that were not always flattering to the robe of civilization that a writer, any artist, might publically wear. This production still had an optimism. It may have been ironic, on reflection, but when one left the theatre then, there was a definite feel good about the time we had just spent together, in the foyer.
The play dealt with, maybe truly, for the ordinary person, a series of incidents that are socially reprehensible behaviours, and the second act is unblenching in its stark look at the black soul of this artist: his conscious use of his sexuality to gain comfort and resource; his hopeless dependence on drugs, illustrated by his uncontrolled recognition of that need of that aid for his successful creative recovery, forcing him to behaviour of emotional blackmail of his ‘dealer’ in a ghastly showdown of nerve using a man’s family happiness as the hostage for ugly gain; the false celebration of the writer finding his innocent creative roots through the imbibing of his drug of favour and flavour to kick start him into the realm of being able to imaginatively manifest (as he did when young), firstly, the school teacher, Mrs Walkham, who was perhaps the fertile inspiration for his burgeoning talent ,and then, secondarily, a glorious performance of his first play, once banned, the TOY SYMPHONY and, thirdly, to ultimately bring to life the figure of Anton Chekhov, to some of us the world’s greatest playwright. This second act of the play had, for me and most of the audience about me, in the original production, an air of all’s well that ends well. There was no critical analysis of the ends that justified this writer’s means of creative impulse. I felt later, in my righteous way, that the lesson or role model that Mr Henning may have been for his audience was a weakness in the play and had been not properly dealt with in the original production. But it was probably for me an admiration of the gifts of the actor that skewed my appreciation of the darkness of this amazingly stark portrait of an artist in crisis.
This joint production by the Queensland Theatre Company and the State Company of South Australia by Geordie Brookman has no such bravura performance to distract us from the play. The Set design (Jonathon Oxlade), a banal and depressing dark wooded office/room with a few windows and doors sets the relatively sombre mood of this production. The “cubbyholes” of tricks to spring on the audience for surprise entrances and exits, deftly hidden. The Lighting (Nigel Levings) is both stark and fluorescent cold and when necessary, invitingly warm to signal the respite of imagination as well. The clothing/costume is simply pragmatic and necessarily ingenious, sometimes, in the quick change demands of the invention of the writer. The Composition and Sound Design (Brett Collery) serves the shifts in mood and location unobtrusively.
What Mr Brookman and Mr Pitman bring to this play is a merciless seriousness. This is a very “dark night of the soul” production. In contrast to the original creators, mentioned above, this is a very “generation Y” point of view of this text. And it is illuminating for it. No shared re-remembered vision of happier, golden times. Just a gloomy but healthy look at the present and probable future - “We are Fucked and the future is fucked!!!!” In this production the path taken by Mr Pitman and his director with Roland Henning, is one of relentless exposure to the realistic behaviour patterns of a psychologically ill soul. There is little sense of humour or even ironic nostalgia for this journey in the play. The suffering of the writer, here, is real and almost too painful to endure. (Almost of a REQUIEM OF A DREAM intensity) and at the conclusion of the performance a pervading atmosphere of pessimism permeates. (Like his imagined heroes, Alexander the Great, St Joan or Scott of the Antarctic a miserable ending is likely for Roland Henning - for the future of a drug addiction is not a promising one in the long turn.) Unlike the other production, this production shares the storytelling responsibilities more evenly amongst the other actors. Each seem to have a telling moment in the sun. Lizzy Falkland, Barbara Lowing, Daniel Mulvihill, Ed Wrightman. This production feels more like an ensemble effort rather than that of a star turn. In the original, the role of the therapist appeared under developed and not properly realised, here, Nina (Lizzy Falkland) feels more fleshed out (still, in my experience, improbable but...), the apparitions of Mr Henning (Alexander the Great, St. Joan’s executioner, Scott of the Antarctic, more centred and impactful, not just caricatured comic strip figures, good for a laugh, nostalgic jokes. Mrs Walkman (Barbara Lowing) was less a remembered figure of innocent and whimsical goodness but more a concerned teacher with a sense of vocation. Daniel Muvihill, particularly as Nick and the Young Boy, was revealing of a depth of writing that was not necessarily available in the original production.
The accumulation of this directorial magnifying glass on the tragedy of this man is ultimately agonisingly cauterising in the flagellating second act. The scenes so relentlessly excoriating of the depths that a desperate soul might descend to, to survive, so grotesque that it is a moral exposure and maybe warning that one takes away from this production with a weary burden much like what the original Greek audience may have had on witnessing Oedipus for the first time. (More meaningful, now, in 2009 than even 2007, when Waste and Greed have revealed themselves as the possible title of this chapter/age in the history books. Much like I had after a particularly inspired lecture by the missionaries of the Catholic Church at the Parish Retreats - one felt guilty but relieved that we had been enlightened in time to save our own actions from such sorrows and results. (Oh, foolish one.)
What I have come to realise in this production of TOY SYMPHONY is the fierce courage of Michael Gow as a writer. There is a saying that to succeed as a writer you need to write what you know. What Mr Gow may or may not know, personally, about the behaviour of Mr Henning, this alter ego, who also appears in another of Mr Gow’s plays FURIOUS, as the main character in a similarly ruthless examination of a man in action, (and there are allusions to other works of Mr Gow and Mr Henning that are identifiably identical - the reference to a lost dog play and the existence of SWEET PHOBE), there is enough tantalising cross referencing from the writer to character to keep one entirely alert and mesmerized with ghoulish reflections of the possibility of biography – when and where!!! If true. Thematically, we have been warned of the serious intentions and occupations of this playwright right from the beginning of his writing career. THE KID, Mr Gow’s first play, a warning of an apocalypse, using Wagner’s DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN as a musical support(!!!!!); even to his choice of adaptation THE FORTUNES OF RICHARD MAHONY, an investigation of a man disintegrating into madness. (Maybe, AWAY, one of my favourite Australian plays, distracted me away from the real gaze of Mr Gow - my own family connections were so amazingly reflected as to make it both spooky and nostalgic – through Gwen (my mother – I thought. It was pretty tough!!!) . What ever, this production by Mr Brookman, made me re-examine what was already a "glowing memory" and to re-estimate the quality of the playwrighting in TOY SYMPHONY, and take the last act, terrifyingly intentional, to help me appreciate more intently the magnificent courage of the writing.
Both productions of this play have a legitimate bench mark in my theatre going experience. Both differently balanced but both worthy of cherishing. Both productions may have imbalances: The original, too dominated by nostalgia and a bravura performance; the latter with a lack of ironic humour (which the apparition of Chekhov might have indicated to this director and actor in softening some of their choices). But, as I observed in my ruminations on A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, “The great plays are timeless and have the movement in them to infinite choices (some more than others).” So here in this recent work by Michael Gow the interpretative variety is stimulating, and with another Director approaching the text with respect, I look forward to a new reading of TOY SYMPHONY. (Sadly, not probable in our theatre culture.)
Playing in Queensland until the 12 December. To book click here.
Playing in South Australia from 28 January - 14 February 2010. To book click here.