The Floating World

The Stables, October 19

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Shingo Usami, Peter Kowitz and Justin Stewart Cotta. Photo: Brett Boardman.

For all the benign serenity of its title John Romerils’s play seethes with the inevitability of its apocalyptic finale. This eight-page monologue delivered by Les Harding is an open wound for the actor to gouge and inflame. Peter Kowitz’s delivery of the speech is so potent and affecting that you lean forward in curious horror even as you feel it pushing you back in your seat. At its conclusion you stumble from the theatre dazed and changed.

This is the opposite of the frippery that too often passes for theatre in this town: theatre in which preening directors fiddle with masterworks as though they are distorting mirrors that will make their modest talents seem massive. This is real, not in the wretched sense of naturalism, but because of almost unbearably powerful emotions made extant upon the stage.

The monologue is not perfect: its real climax comes too early for that. Despite this flaw it is magnificent writing, and Kowitz’s performance took those words and tattooed them on our souls. This was the more remarkable because there is little to like about Les. He is cruel, sexist, racist and coarse. His sense of humour, when it rises above base vulgarity, is a saving grace of sorts, but more important was our growing capacity for forgiveness as we learn more of what he went through at the hands of the Japanese in World War II.

My own father was a POW – of the Germans rather than the Japanese – who, like Les, was disinclined to talk about his experiences, especially in the time the play is set, the early ’70s, when the war was still a decade closer than the ’70s are to us, now. The trauma, horror and pain that Les has been housing with no relief-valve is too much for one man to bear. So he drinks. And when his wife Irene (Valerie Bader) drags him on a Women’s Weekly cruise to Japan he drinks more and more as his floating world drifts closer to the shore of his old but still hated enemy.

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Peter Kowitz in the finale. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Director Sam Strong is well used to maximising the crucible-like nature of the little stage at the Stables, and designer Stephen Curtis’s raised white rostrum with lighting box above it is like an operating theatre for dissecting mangled minds, hearts and souls.

Bader is superb as a woman who expects no higher ideal than  normality from her husband. She is even vaguely likeable, despite her ignorance, amusing spoonerisms and complete inability to diagnose Les’s malaise.

Tony Llewellyn-Jones invests Herbert Robinson, a retired Royal Navy admiral, with the suavity, decorum, patience and aristocratic charm to make him seem a dream compared with Les in the eyes of Irene. But he, too, cannot help Les for quite different reasons: the war is something that should be efficiently compartmentalised, and then one moves on.

Justin Smith oils his way winningly through the rapid schtick of The Comic, whose frightful entertainment routines are accompanied by Justin Stewart Cotta’s cheesy organ and boom-tish percussion punctuations. The latter is also a potent presence as the ghostly McLeod, who haunts Les’s mind with memories no man  should have to bear. Finally Shingo Usami plays the waiter who morphs into a murderous guard before Les’s eyes and our own.

Besides the organ music composer Kelly Ryall sometimes fills the air with eerie soundscapes, while Verity Hampson’s lighting could be the blasting Pacific sun or the unforgiving whiteness of the operating theatre, laboratory or psyche hospital.

Not all the plays from the early 1970s wave of Australian theatre bear repeated scrutiny. This one remains a towering achievement, as this compelling Griffin production confirms.