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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Armfield’

It’s a tribute to the Sydney Theatre Company that they’ve gone ahead with this NT run after the tragic death of the story’s narrator Ningali Lawford-Wolf at the end of their Edinburgh Festival visit, and to Pauline Whyman who has flown from Australia to read the part in her place. Director Neil Armfield’s moving tribute before it started dedicated the performance to Ningali.

It’s adapted by Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s novel, inspired by her research into her ancestors. South Londoner William Thornhill was deported for what would now be considered a very minor crime as an alternative to execution. After a period of incarceration he is pardoned and with his wife Sal and sons Dick and Willie sets his sights on building a new life in Australia, though Sal reluctantly so, and for only five years. They take 100 acres on the Hawkesbury River, just 30 miles from Sydney, where a handful of other settlers have set up home, and begin to farm it whilst William also earns money from the use of his boat. The land is of course already inhabited by the indigenous Dharug people, and conflict ensues. There are attempts to build a friendship between these two peoples, notably by William & Sal, even more so their youngest son Willie, but other settlers’ actions lead to bloodshed.

It’s a surprising emotional ride. You find yourself sympathising with these settlers, disowned by their own country for the pettiest of crimes which would today incur a small fine, community service or even a caution, sent thousands of miles away from their homes and families to what they see as a hostile place. The fact they once lived on the doorstep of this theatre some 200 years ago adds a certain frisson. As the story progresses though, you become angry at their hostility, racism and violence, with more than a touch of shame; they are our ancestors after all.

The Aboriginal actors speak Dharung and there is no attempt at translation or surtitling, which I thought added authenticity to the storytelling. There is superb atmospheric music written by Iain Grandage, played live by Isaac Hayward. The simple design, a bare stage with just a fire, surrounded by branches and occasionally covered in water, earth or powder is very evocative. It’s a terrific ensemble, excellently led by Nathanial Dean and Georgia Adamson as the Thornhill’s. Pauline Whyman has great presence as Dhirrumbin and given her role is the story’s narrator, reading the part is not at all detrimental. I’ve admired Neil Armfield’s work in theatre and opera since I saw Cloudstreet at the Riverside Studios twenty years ago, and his staging here is masterly.

It’s great to welcome the Sydney Theatre Company to the NT, despite the tragedy en route. A very fine play, a very fine production and a fitting tribute.

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David Hare can’t complain about his share of the National’s stages; this is his 17th play to premiere there. Over more than thirty years, he’s put up a mirror to Britain, from foreign press barons in Pravda (co-written with Howard Brenton), through institutions like the church and judiciary, politics, finance, war, rail privatisation and the Labour Party. Now he combines Labour and the NHS for his latest.

We follow Pauline Gibson from just before she goes to University through her work as a hospital doctor to standing and being elected as a single issue MP and the possibility of her bid to lead the Labour Party. Her university friend and sometime lover Jack takes a different path, following in his fathers footsteps as a career politician; he also has his eyes on the party leadership. Along the way a lot of other issues, both health service and party related, are brought in, most notably Pauline’s childhood, where her father’s abuse of her mother and her mother’s health loom large.

I felt that Hare lost focus by trying to cover too much (this may be a late career phenomenon, as Alan Bennett has done the same of late) and I feel that the premise that the Labour Party would elect someone who had only just joined and is still an independent MP is implausible. That said, it emphasises the political importance of the NHS, the Labour Party’s apparent aversion to female leadership and how it puts inward-looking concerns above the pursuit of power very well.

The three central roles are exceptionally well acted by Sian Brooke, Alex Hassell and Joshua McGuire as Pauline’s representative Sandy. I loved the humour of the press conferences and the projection of close-ups of the faces of those interviewed onto the walls of the revolving room which represents every location. Hare’s dialogue sparkles and there’s much humour. I wondered whether an Australian director like Neil Armfield brought more objectivity to it, but did not reach a conclusion.

Flawed perhaps, but well worth a visit nonetheless.

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