This year, Michael Gow's Australian classic Away returns to STC – we first produced the play back in 1987. Thirty years on, Matthew Lutton, Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, brings a fresh perspective to this much-loved story. We caught up with him to find out what drew him to the text…
Away is a great play from and about a different generation to yours – written three decades ago, set two decades earlier than that. What drew you to directing it now?
One of the qualities that make Away a great play, or a classic, is that the flaws of the 1960s characters are the same flaws we witness in Australia today. They are the flaws of the Australian psyche. So Away is a play we can continue to revisit and, each time we do, it reveals more to us.
But what drew me initially to Away was the theatrical scope of the writing (I was incredibly excited by how much theatrical invention the writing offers), and the enormous emotional impact of the mothers. I was shocked by how moved I was by the three mothers and their wrestle with losing their children. This is a complex longing and pain that we can all empathize with. So it was the nuance of Michael Gow’s writing that I was ultimately drawn to, and the way he has crafted a work of enormous pain and beauty.
The play very clearly references Shakespeare and even has a scene written in chorus. How does this theatricality shape the play and what does it offer you as a director?
There are a lot of literary references throughout the play, but Shakespeare is the major one, as the play opens with a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, concludes with a scene from King Lear, and in the middle has a storm that is a merging of the opening of The Tempest and the storm scene of King Lear.
The Shakespearian references bring nature and the epic into the play, and this is one of the things that attracted me to the work theatrically, and it provides the framework for this new production. We begin with Tom’s vision of Midsummer (it’s quite a vast and macabre vision – Peter Brook’s famous version of Midsummer premiered in the late 1960s, and I suspect Tom heard about this production), and Tom’s desire to ‘dream’ into existence other possibilities for his own family, and other families, guides a lot of the ‘summer dream’ that occurs throughout the play.
Because Away contains so many different theatrical styles and references within it, you can choose to create a production that uses this to create the imaginative world of Tom onstage. One of the things I want to achieve with this production of Away is to bring the eclectic theatre forms that Michael Gow has written to the fore – to create a production that swings from moments of intense intimacy to grand spectacle.
Can you talk about the cast you’ve assembled for this production – is it a team you’ve worked with before? What were you looking for in casting them?
It is an extraordinary cast, and I’ve only worked with two of the actors before. I spent a lot of time auditioning to create a cohort who would be a contemporary ensemble of Australians re-inventing this classic. All the cast play a variety of roles and ages, so I required an ensemble that had contrasting but complementary energies, and actors who could access both the humor and pain of Michael’s writing. But I also wanted actors who would be able to approach the play with a different and sharp energy. Being a classic, there are scenes and monologues that are beloved and well known, and one of my priorities was searching for actors who could approach these moments in surprising and unexpected ways.
Away, 18 Feb – 25 Mar 2017, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
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