Directed by Damien Ryan and Samantha Young
Sport for Jove
Corner of City Road and Cleveland Street, Chippendale
Season: 2 – 6 June (Riverside Theatres); 22 – 25 June (Seymour Centre)
For life to exist and have value, life must end. Whilst everyone is affected by death – be it through experiencing loss, or through the subconscious fear of the unknown – it affects each person in profoundly different ways. This stands out to me from the Sport for Jove production of Away, as they bring to life the most frequently performed Australian play. Three families in the Australian summer of 1967 encounter loss and change in differing ways. We see their coping and defence mechanisms spring to action, but ultimately we see a picture of resounding vulnerability.
Textually, I’m not the biggest fan of the play Away itself, written by Michael Gow. I find it to be an odd play – a little disjointed and without clear direction. Of course, this is my humble opinion – a play doesn’t become a nation’s most frequently performed work for nothing. However Ryan and Young’s production romps and revels with comedy, spectacle and tragedy in one fell swoop. Ryan and Young’s co-direction discovers the glimmering gems of the play and polishes them to their brightest. Detailed relationship work allows the audience to become engrossed in each scene – without necessarily understanding how each scene exactly connects to the other.
A few scenes especially stood out to me. High schooler Tom, played by James Bell, is aware that he’s dying of leukaemia. He likes Meg (played by Georgia Scott), and she likes him. Not wanting to die without having had sex, Tom basically begs her to “let him do it to her”. This scene fascinated me, as it brashly contaminated such a piteous situation with forthright crudeness – in the audience, you didn’t know how to feel. This scene excellently summed up the ambiguity and confusion that can permeate sexuality, especially for teenagers. Another scene features the sweet old Jim (Berynn Schwerdt) and incorrigible martyr Gwen (Sarah Woods) who are parents to Meg. They share a kiss that due to ageist ideals, we rarely see on the stage or the screen – and yet it was one of the most beautiful kisses I’ve ever seen. Finally, the cataclysmic storm scene explores the power of spectacle to rouse audiences – it left me a little bit speechless. Lucilla Smith’s sublime set design consisted primarily of simple curtains draped across the stage, manipulated by the actors to morph into the various settings of the play. When the storm was brewing to the point of fury, the set collapsed in tune with the actors’ movements to produce powerful images leaving the audience quivering. Often we see grand spectacle pushed to the limits in film, through the power of CGI etc etc. But the grandeur of this spectacle on the live stage should not be underestimated, being a tool that seems to be often neglected in evoking tangible emotion to the action on stage.
1967 was a rather different historical landscape to present day – scarred by recent tragedies and yet brimming with optimism for a brighter future. This is opposed to a contemporary feeling of political disillusionment. However, the themes and emotions that underlie the core of Away, brought to the fore in Ryan and Young’s production, are enduring and much the same as experiences of today. Sport for Jove proves to be, yet again, a company that astutely observes the historical context of a preeminent text and reorientates the text for contemporary relevance. It finds this new meaning through the power of playful comedy, raw tragedy, and being rooted in human emotion.