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NOWT MORE OUTCASTIN’: STC’S THE GOLDEN AGE

January 25, 2016

Early on in her study of Louis Nowra’s work, Veronica Kelly remarks upon the fact all of Nowra’s work seems to be focused around outcasts or outsiders, the experience of being an outsider, as well as the physical and psychological landscapes the characters find themselves in. Written in 1985 and revised in 1989, The Golden Age is perhaps Nowra’s most pertinent and, certainly, his most epic play to date. It is also a play that is not afraid to ask the big challenging questions, even if it knows it does not – cannot – hold all the answers itself. Inspired by a possibly-apocryphal story about a group of people found in the Tasmanian wilderness in the late 1930s who were descended from convict runaways and social outcasts from a hundred years earlier, Nowra’s play follows this ‘lost tribe’ out of the bush and the myriad repercussion their arrival brings for them and the two young men who stumbled across their camp. Directed here by Kip Williams for Sydney Theatre Company, this ‘thirtieth anniversary’ production of The Golden Age straddles war and peace, and ranges from Tasmania to Berlin and ancient Greece, with skill, integrity, humanity, and passion. In Williams’ hands, Nowra’s play bursts onto the stage in an earthy, exuberant, and intensely moving way that defies you to see its true age, and demands we hold it in its rightful place in Australia’s dramatic and cultural legacy.

David Fleischer’s set – a large mound of earth in the middle of the stage, surrounded by half-painted white walls – may look simplistic, but as the play unfolds it is anything but. Simple, perhaps, but this gesture – a pile of earth, almost-bare walls – is what Kip Williams terms the ‘poetic gesture’, an idea or image that only makes sense in a particular space. When coupled with the various other set elements which are brought on as the story and scenes progress and change, the gestural offering of Fleischer’s space becomes charged with a theatrical magic, a potency of stage-craft whereby the addition of a humble bench changes the mood and impact of a scene, makes us aware of being voyeurs, victims of the bystander effect, and asks us just how comfortable are we with this. Fleischer’s costumes – seemingly drawn from the cultural fabric of our past – do not appear as anachronistic but rather reminders of a time where violence was more visible, brutality was more thuggish, and appearances were often everything. There is a haunting elegance in the lost tribe’s costumes, a faded glory which Ayre embodies in her white lace dress, as well as a tangible sense of what has been lost in the name of ‘progress.’ The rawness of these costumes is juxtaposed with the formality of the suits and uniforms which make up a large proportion of the rest of the characters’ attires, and it differentiates not only the perceived class status, but also the attitudes and difference in characters’ approach to the treatment of the tribespeople once they return to Hobart. Under Damien Cooper’s lights, Fleischer’s set is brought to rich and full-bloodied life, evoking everything from the particular golden light of the bush, to the thinness of moonlight, the blast and flash of warfare, and the sterile clinical anaemia of the asylum. Max Lyandvert’s sound design is similarly rich, full of birdsong and natural sounds, elegiac piano notes and a gently epic tune, as well as providing a consuming and near-total sound environment for the war scenes, making sure we feel the true horror and depredation of mankind’s actions. When combined in the singular space of the Wharf 1 theatre, the world of Nowra’s play is total, as close to realistic as is possible within the boundaries of a theatre, and brings us so completely into his play that it takes a long time for you to muster the courage to leave the space at the play’s conclusion.

In true ensemble fashion, I don’t think there is one single character in The Golden Age who is more important than any other. Nowra’s play – and indeed Williams’ staging – shows that no human is more or less important than any other, nor should their actions be valued more over another’s. There is enormous humanity in these characters; they are flawed, yes, but they are also full of life and never slip into caricature or parody. As Betsheb, Rarriwuy Hick has a tenderness and a fierceness about her which is humbling, if slightly disconcerting at times; her final speech, back on her home soil in the wilderness, is incredibly moving, but underplayed with a hint of sadness and the pain of everything that has been lost. Remy Hii’s Peter, the young geologist who ‘discovers’ the ‘lost tribe’, is a little naïve, but there is also a compassion to his portrayal, a trait which is often clouded by second-guessing and even something akin to repulsion at times. Brandon McClelland’s Francis, Peter’s friend and fellow ‘discoverer’, is strong and quite moving; there is a pain – moral and psychological – to his character which McClelland brings out without a touch of unbelievability; as the latest in a string of performances at STC over the past eighteen months, his Francis demonstrates a maturity which makes this one of his strongest and most compelling performances to date. Robert Menzies as Dr Archer, and tribesman Melorne, is also incredibly moving; as Melorne, we see an (old) man who is eager to demonstrate his culture and/or skill to Francis and Peter, an eagerness which will eventually lead to his demise. As Dr Archer, Peter’s father, and the self-appointed guardian of the tribespeople upon their internment in a Hobart asylum, there is a harrowing desperateness to Menzies’ performance, a man who knows he could do more but is too fascinated by the curiosity of these people’s lives and language to truly instigate any real change; his final scene is heartbreaking, the final actions of a man pushed to the edge by his own desires. There is also something incredibly moving about Liam Nunan’s Stef, the young tribesman with what we might call Autism today; true, Stef doesn’t speak much (or at all), but Nunan’s physicality – crawling and dragging himself around the space, his wide-eyed naivety – is affecting, and his cheekiness only adds to this. As Angel, there is a fierce delight in Zindzi Okenyo’s performance, but it is as Dr Simon, one of the doctors at the asylum, that Okenyo shines; as Dr Simon, she brings a sense of moral and intellectual superiority to bear upon these displaced people, purporting to have their best interests at heart while (not-so) secretly fascinated by them as curiosities. Her confrontation with a drunk Dr Archer late in the second act is telling, as both realise that they are no better, are in no more a position of help and influence, than the other when it comes to the tribespeople’s wellbeing. Sarah Peirse’s Ayre, the matriarch of the tribespeople, is a fascinating character – incredibly strong-willed, but also immensely fragile and delicate. Whilst in the wilderness, she is in charge – almost looked to with referential deferment by her clan – but once in Hobart, she is just as vulnerable as the rest of her people, little more than a curiosity, and Peirse’s portrayal of a woman trying to understand this culture-shock, trying to continue on in a place that is as unfathomable to her as the wilderness is to her captors, is haunting. Anthony Taufa’s Mac is similarly haunting; mostly silent, he is one of the most susceptible of the tribespeople to the unwanted attention of the doctors, and this eventually leads to his demise late in the second act. As a number of other characters, Taufa never descends into caricature, but treats each separate character with dignity and respect, and shows them as humans, just as flawed as the rest of us. Ursula Yovich’s Elizabeth, Dr Archer’s wife (and Peter’s mother), is initially benevolent, but it soon gives way to a jaded cynicism, a knowledge that with the arrival of the tribespeople in Hobart, she will lose both her husband and her son to the public’s fascination with ‘outsiders;’ as a representation of Iphigenia (from Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Tauris), she prefigures much of Nowra’s story and, at the end, perhaps offers a way out of the wilderness, as it were.

Nowra’s play makes extensive use of an invented language, a “word salad” as one of the asylum inmates says, cobbled together from Cockney, Scottish, and Irish slang, and spoken with “a kind of Irish rhythm,” and in some cases a faint lilt. The effect is mesmerising, initially because you are surrounded by these strange words and sounds, words whose twenty-first-century meaning is markedly different to the context in which Nowra uses them. But over the course of the next three hours, we become so immersed in this new language or dialect, that by the end of the play – when Betsheb returns to her original home deep in the Tasmanian bush – we understand every single word perfectly, and the effect is incredibly moving. Under the guidance of STC’s Voice and Text coach Charmian Gradwell, Nowra’s dialect becomes a fully-fledged language, and its rhythms, cadences, sounds – both vulgar and poetic – are fascinating. At one point, Dr Archers remarks how their culture – borne of the “criminals, retards, the lost, the desperate” – is “the true Australian culture,” and in some lights you might be tempted to agree, but it is more than that. It is a link to a past – a linguistic past – which has largely been lost, swallowed up as languages change and mutate, as pronunciations morph, as influences from different cultures and other languages influence our own, so that what we are left with – what we speak and call the English language today – is perhaps blander, more strange, and certainly less colourful than its form two hundred years ago. It is to Nowra’s credit – and to Gradwell’s, to Williams’, to the cast’s – that this invented amalgamation of words, sounds, and influences sounds so thrillingly alive that we are able to understand it mere hours after hearing it for the first time.

Williams’ production is perhaps one of the strongest I have seen from his work as Resident Director at STC. Yet, underneath this accomplished and assured exterior, there are a number of uncomfortable issues at play. One of the most significant is the treatment of ‘Others,’ or those who are different to us in some way. In the world of Nowra’s play, the excuse – reason, justification – for confining the tribespeople to an asylum following their arrival in Hobart is the outbreak of Second World War, and the fact that existence could be used to prove the Nazi theory of the superior race. It’s not just a convenient plot-point, although it does allow Nowra the chance to unpick the way we treat institutionalised people (and in this way perhaps prefigures one of his most well-known plays, Cosí); what Nowra is doing is asking us to look at ourselves, look at the people we see as different, and asks us to think about what it is that makes us different. Is it language, is it physicality, is it racial, is it cultural? None of this matters – we are all human, all people first and foremost – so the separation and distinction between people due to perceived differences is both cruel, offensive, and unjustified. Yet it persists today.

 

This is where Nowra’s thirty-year-old play “crawls deep inside our national psyche,” as Andrew Upton writes in the program, and reveals ideas “as fresh and as dangerous as ever.” The tension at the heart of The Golden Age, as in Nowra’s adaptation of Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, is one between colonists and displaced people, the very tensions which sit at the heart of Australia’s history since 1770; the same tensions Andrew Bovell amplified from Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, and are now being exposed across the internet in Stan Grant’s IQ2 address from October 2015. Rather than endorsing or confirming the “shallow Darwinism” which often lies behind the justification for acts of assimilation, “Nowra attacks the notion by offering the madness of war as the stronger civilisation’s only legacy.” War, for Nowra, is just the same as racial assimilation – a militarily stronger country (or culture) invades, colonises, and/or swallows a smaller or lesser one – until power corrupts, and empires crumble, like the remnant of the Greek temple in the garden.

Watching The Golden Age unfold, one is struck by how ironic a title it is, by how truly contrarian the behaviour of the supposedly ‘civilised’ people in the play is. As Gerry Turcotte writes in the introduction to Nowra’s script (an excerpt of which is reprinted in the show’s program):

The conceit of the two worlds is a useful paradigm for Nowra’s questioning
of such values as are attached to the primitive, the civilised, the legitimate
and the illegitimate. For despite the colony’s archaic rituals, its genetic
malformations, its infertility and imminent demise, Nowra can effectively
contrast its world with the chaos of a civilisation which, despite its supposedly
greater knowledge and sophistication, is nevertheless about to engage in a
world war. The parallel begs the question: how can the modern world consider
itself superior to supposedly simpler societies, when it cannot even save itself
from the most simplistic of solutions to political complexities: war?

Even more simply: how can an enlightened society think the best way forwards is to dehumanise and routinely humiliate others simply because they are different, seem a curiosity, are not like them? Even in its own redemption – Francis’ final act of going back to the wilderness with Betsheb, for better or worse – far from being a ‘return to nature’ idyllic decision, there are issues regarding the nature of their relationship, the integrity of their feelings, and the repercussions of such actions, but Nowra and Williams problematise them in ways that are unpatronising and honest; they also, in their own ways, give their audiences the power to fill in the blanks, to imagine the ramifications of these actions, and thus give us as much agency as the characters in determining the fate of Francis and Betsheb.

Whether or not the account that inspired Nowra to write the play is true is quite beside the point; even though The Golden Age is an uncomfortable play, it is also an incredibly rewarding one; blending folklore, fact, fiction, mythology, and passion into a story about obsession, responsibility to ourselves and those less fortunate than us, language, culture, and tradition, it somehow manages to be intensely personal and intimate at the same time as being phenomenally wide-ranging and epic in its unfolding.