All of the actors are flawless, while Brendan Cowell is just breathtaking.
When Once in Royal David's City opens with a narrative by the main character, Will Drummond, (Brendan Cowell) we don't know where he is. Luckily, Will informs us that he’s at an airport awaiting the arrival of his mother, but the tone is set: over the next 100 minutes, the audience will have multiple questions about the play; some more existential than others.
Part homage to the German director and playwright, Bertold Brecht, and part reflection on modern society, Once in Royal David's City features Will, a theatre director who has just pulled out of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest following both the death of his father and poor performances from a leading actor. He is waiting for his mother, Jeannie, (Helen Morse) at Ballina Airport, hoping to give her a good Christmas. When Jeannie arrives, it's obvious that she's desperately ill and she ends up hospitalised. In contrast to her obvious grief and illness, Will has the nervous energy and mannerisms of a man who's angry and disillusioned. He reflects on Brecht; his hero since taking a life-changing trip to see the Berliner Ensemble in his youth, and the subject of a class he's been asked to teach in a private school. Will is clearly at a crossroads; faced with his failing career and the death of a parent, he rails against the class system of a society which is particularly evident in the behaviours of characters such as the ignorant teacher (Tara Morice) and abrupt doctor (Lech Machiewicz). In his final scene, he delivers a haunting, lengthy monologue to the students which wraps the production up neatly; in particular, by challenging the idea that Brecht didn't wish the audience to identify with any of his characters.
A great Belvoir talent, director Eamon Flack has done an excellent job on this crisp production. One of Flack's strengths is in directing performance and it shows here; all of the actors are flawless, while Cowell is just breathtaking. Special mention must also go to Morice, who displays a powerful singing voice to lead several choral accompaniments to Alan John's great musical set. Designer Nick Schlieper uses lighting well but has little to do on the sparse Brechtian set design. Use of the circular curtain to delineate between scenes is adequate, but it's been done too many times before.
While there are many references to Brecht in its style and content, those without any prior knowledge will still be able to understand. That said, this is a theatre lover's play. Michael Gow has written something that's truly for our times (and fittingly, has been immortalised in the beautiful script programs on sale at each performance). Once in Royal David's City is funny, thought-provoking and touching.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Once in Royal David's City
By Michael Gow
Directed by Eamon Flack
Set and lighting designer: Nick Schlieper
Costume Designer: Mel Page
Composer: Alan John
Sound Supervisor: Michael Toisuta
With: Helen Buday, Brendan Cowell, Maggie Dence, Harry Greenwood, Lech Machiewicz, Tara Morice, Helen Morse, Anthony Phelan.
Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills
8 February – 23 March