Drama Theatre, November 9
Patrick White led Australian playwrights to a crossroads: the stultifying dead-end of naturalism, or the boundless possibilities of rampant theatricality. The latter offered dreams and fancies painted in surreal extravaganzas, and people’s internal and external worlds mingling like mismatched guests at a cocktail party. Alas, naturalism won, and 1963’s A Cheery Soul (here directed by Kip Williams for STC), reminds us of what might have been.
If it is ultimately the tragedy of Miss Docker, the title’s cheery soul, whose desperation to do good poisons people (and even a dog!) against her, it’s also wildly multifaceted. Docker (Sarah Peirse) is as comical as tragic, and White serves up satirical side-orders of 1950s suburbia, seasoned with carnal desire and Anglicanism, while theatrical flourishes hurtle from unexpected angles, as the internal is made as real as the external.
Not an easy play to stage, it began awkwardly when neither Anita Hegh (Mrs Custance) nor Anthony Taufa (her husband) hit quite the right tone. Hegh played her character with Stepford-Wife exaggeration, where we should have first been lured into a comfortingly normal world, before it dissolves and distorts. The exception was the middle-aged couple’s undimmed lust, a subject White revisits between the younger Reverend Wakeman (Brandon McClelland) and his wife (Nikki Shiels), and these sly slices of erotica underscore part of Docker’s tragedy: still man-mad in her 60s, she is likely a virgin as well as a spinster.
For all its innovation and risk-taking, A Cheery Soul is a masterful writer’s work rather than a masterpiece. It suffers narrative and structural weaknesses, and has a protagonist who not only wears out her welcome with the privacy-craving Custances, but with the audience. Unless, that is, the performer softens her: imbues her with flashes of warmth, and arouses sympathy for the sadness and loneliness masked by her insufferable cheeriness.
Sarah Peirse successfully executes this juggling act, while letting Docker remain manipulative, covetous, emotionally stunted and guilty as charged by Wakeman with “the sin of goodness” and with – in one of White’s most delicious phrases – “militant virtue”.
What really keeps us glued to our seats, however, is the surrealism. When the action moves from the Custances to the Sundown Home for Old People, the play suddenly explodes into giddy, seething life. Williams has 11 actors playing over 40 roles, and in the female-populated Sundown this necessitates Taufa and Bruce Spence becoming old ladies, the latter to especially glorious effect – not milked for cheap drag gags, but a deeper comedy – and, as with Spence’s other characters, probability is bent beyond recognisable shape. Among the other actors Tara Morice (the porcelain Miss Lillie) initially seemed uneasy with White’s most poetic lines, yet by the funeral was grasping their beauty like a bridal bouquet.
Meanwhile the unison chorus of elderly women – equally disquieting and comical – delivers gems like these about death: “We’ve had a peep or two by now. We’ve watched the canary-coloured light from under the door. We’ve heard the silence with half an ear.”
Swelling the surrealism and creating half-remembered cinematic echoes, Williams uses live video almost as extensively as in his Arturo Ui, this time collaborating with Elizabeth Gadsby (sets) and David Bergman (video). Although distracting and intrusive in Act One, the videos brilliantly compound the weirdness and comedy thereafter, especially in the climactic church scene. Ultimately they, like Clemence Williams’ spectral score, help frame and amplify White’s gorgeous, unselfconscious, poetic prose: a window on what Australian playwriting might have been.
Until December 15.