The Sydney Theatre Company’s revival of Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age (1985) is a disturbing and engrossing piece of theatre. It is a play that leaves a strong aftertaste.
A big-boned play, it openly addresses the ongoing contestation of what a civilised Australia might entail. It focuses our attention on who tells the stories that make up the Australian experience, how wide ranging is this narrative, who listens, and what are the layers of meaning that a society lays down and then forgets. Given our ‘post Howard’ obsession with the Anzac legend as our over riding national story, there is still pertinent ore to mine here.
But this is no dry tale of abstracted principals for at its heart lies a love story between the ‘civilised’ working class boy Francis and Betsheb from the wilderness tribe. Her tribe has endured isolation in remote South West Tasmania since the 1850s in which biological and behavioural forces have carved the flows of a unique culture and language.
The play has some extraordinary moments of theatre that are risky and ambitious, played out on a monstrous slag of dark rich earth (staging designed by David Fleisher). The staking out of the confines of the insane asylum in this earth mound is starkly and beautifully handled
Nowra’s invention of the lost language of the wilderness tribe – the cleft palate inflected sounds of Celtic, Cockney and Convict slang - is disturbingly real, even when at the beginning of the play when we don’t quite understand its speechified meaning. The wondrous reading of a ‘happy king Lear’, performed by the wilderness tribe, catches the cadences of a Shakespearean language, while allowing us to acclimatise to the tumbling happiness of these joyous people.
Ayre, Queenie of the wilderness tribe, is played by Sarah Peirse, that protean actor who always challenges and inspires. Her strength, bemusement and eventual decision to return the tribe to late 1930s civilisation and the rumbling of a Second World War is lovingly charted, as is her death from tuberculosis, incarcerated in a Tasmanian mental asylum. The scene of her dying, where she is feeding her oral culture and its wellspring of truth to Betsheb, is like one expiring animal providing its last breath of wisdom to the next earthly guardian.
The taut production by Kip Williams manages to hold together the more episodic stretches of the play, though at times, the archetypes that Nowra creates (like the royal Greek that opens the play) delimits audience engagement: the upper middle class Archer family present similar difficulties. The father who grows increasingly intemperate in his obsession with the lost language and culture of the wilderness tribe, the mother who clings to a transplanted ancient Greek culture and colonial proprieties (dinner with the Governor), and the son, a four square young man who cannot experience the intercultural engagement offered him, are all less interestingly fleshed – though the decline and suicide of the doctor is shockingly realised by the veteran Robert Menzies.
But the plays ideas are wide ranging and gripping. The interesting juxtaposition of 1930s Australia hitching itself to fight against Hitler’s German is founded on a clear appreciation of both countries’ fear/respect for eugenics and the normative power of racial determinants. The conquests of civilisation, the antithetical desire for ‘simple saws and solutions’, is nicely embedded in the play’s treatment of war and the unethical actions that unfold in the midst of a battle for control. As Auden once querulously wrote in Spain, 1937– “history to the defeated/ May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.” Control of History, one might say, is at the core of Nowra’s piece.
The cast are generally believable; Peirse’s assumption of Mrs Whitcome is a gem of rigorous understatement, while the wilful passion of McClelland as Francis, and the contrasting force and shared delight of Hick as Betsheb is both beautiful and dynamic.
In this play the questions always linger, even when Francis and Betsheb return to arcadia on the run, so to speak, from civilisation. Her joyous attendance of the earth and the gloomen to “adorate the shiny brocade sky” is tempered by her lover’s body language which hints at the tension a return to arcadia might involve. But the cry of the play - ‘no more outcastin’ – ironically gives backbone to this outome. The story of this continent involves big and open truths and Nowra deserves our thanks for making us aware of this need to dig deep into our past and reflect on its complexity.
Sydney Theatre Company (STC) – Roslyn Packer Sydney Theatre – February 2, 2016