Matthew Lutton's visually stunning production feels disconnected from the classic play itself.

Image: Prudence Upton – Sydney Theatre Company production

Michael Gow’s Away is an Australian classic. The play was first produced over 30 years ago at the Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney and has since been performed many times both locally and internationally. There is a whole generation who have grown up with this piece due to the fact that the play was part of the high school curriculum for many years. This brand new staging is a collaboration between Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company and it’s directed with astonishing magical theatricality by Matthew Lutton. The problem is that there is a distinct disconnect between the play itself and Lutton’s heightened vision of it.

It’s the summer of 1968 and three families are setting out on their annual Christmas holidays. Harry (Wadih Dona), Vic (Julia Davis) and their son Tom (Liam Nunan) are going camping up the coast; Tom’s school crush Meg (Naomi Rukavina) is off caravanning with her parents Jim (Marco Chiappi) and Gwen (Heather Mitchell); and school headmaster Roy (Glenn Hazeldine) is taking his grieving wife Coral (Natasha Herbert) away to the Gold Coast.

From the opening scenes at a school production of A Midsummer Nights Dream the central themes of the play begin to emerge. Societal rituals, class divisions, grief and the devastation of war are just some of the subjects explored in Away and all of the central characters are dealing with dramatic shifts in their lives. Meg is trying to escape the clutches of her overbearing and judgmental mother; Coral’s grip on reality is slipping away as she tries to deal with the death of her son in the Vietnam War, and young Tom is eager to make the most of his life before it is cut tragically short by a devastating terminal illness. A cataclysmic storm midway through the play brings the three families fatefully together on an isolated beach where truths are revealed and seething issues are confronted.

Lutton’s production emphasises the fantastical, dreamlike qualities inherent in the text and he deftly uses every trick in his theatrical bag to bring these elements to life on stage. Stylised movement and dance feature heavily, the quirky choreography by Stephanie Lake is brilliant, and remnants from the Midsummer Nights Dream sequence that opens the play begin to bleed into reality: creepy sheep skull masks reappear throughout the production blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. These moments are mesmerising and most effective when mirroring Coral’s fractured state of mind. The dance routine that opens act three on the Gold Cost and the use of a gold glitter curtain (stage design is by David Ferguson) takes on a glitzy yet sinister tone reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s early work on Strictly Ballroom.

But the most jaw-dropping moment comes as the storm arrives. Not only does it actually rain on stage (though the raindrops are actually made of recycled car tyres), Lutton and his design team also achieve something truly breathtaking in this pivotal moment. I literally gasped and grabbed the arm of my friend when it happened. I won’t spoil the surprise but the stage morphs in a monumental way and it is seriously stunning. Lutton has such a knack for creating memorable visuals on stage (the trashed car in Pompeii, L.A. springs immediately to mind) and this production is full of them.

So what’s the problem? At the end of the day the simple narrative of Gow’s play, the basic trajectory of the characters' journeys and the performance style of the cast never quite match the heightened grandiosity of the direction and design. These are characters grounded in reality and the performances are naturalistic yet they operate within an almost operatic production full of fantastical elements and dazzling stagecraft. Unfortunately, these two sides never really truly connect and you walk away dazzled yet scratching your head. Also, some of the more dramatic moments in the plot fall a bit flat; the revelation of Tom’s illness is delivered as almost a throwaway line and Tom’s proposition scene with Meg has little spark. The sound design, whilst initially evocative of location, is almost constant throughout the show and it becomes rather distracting and tiresome.

There is still a lot to enjoy in this new production of Away. The cast are fantastic, particularly Hazeldine, Herbert and Mitchell, and the whilst the play may not have the same impact on audiences that it had 30 years ago it is still a thought provoking exploration of Australian identity. It’s also another opportunity to reflect on who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re heading as a society. Also, any opportunity to see what director Matthew Lutton has achieved on stage this time is definitely worth it.

3 stars out of 5

By Michael Gow
Presented by Malthouse Theatre & Sydney Theatre Company
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Set & Costume Design:  Dale Ferguson
Lighting Design: Paul Jackson
Sound Design: J. David Franzke
Choreography: Stephanie Lake
Stage Manager: Lisa Osborn
Featuring Marco Chiappi, Julia Davis, Wadih Dona, Glenn Hazeldine, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell, Liam Nunan and Naomi Rukavina

Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse
3–28 May 2017

Reuben Liversidge

Monday 8 May, 2017

About the author

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.