Essay by Judith Rodriguez

‘Away’, as a title, gives little away. It’s a common word that’s packed in a lot of meanings and feelings over centuries of use. To be ‘not here’ offers endless possibilities – some delightful, like a holiday, escaping something unpleasant, or exploring new experiences. ‘Away you go!’ suggests that what happens next will be exciting, different – a fast ride, a plunge into sea or space.

What of those left behind? A dear one is absent – for how long? and can you keep in touch? And there are those who are absent in mind; ‘away with the birds’, inaccessible to friends, perhaps trapped, unable to return ‘here’. Or even, most drastically, alienated by mental illness – a threat that shadows one of Gow’s characters, who also actually escapes from her partner to realise a version of herself ‘away’ from the everyday one.

‘Away!’ distances people. Being ‘sent away’ is code for personal disaster – expulsion from ordinary life, to detention or exile. Use a different tone or voice, and ‘far away and long ago’ in folk tales and fairy stories suspends disbelief and introduces magical happenings.

All of these meanings are used in Michael Gow’s play.

There are two epigraphs – quotations, at the beginning – both from Shakespeare; their plays tell of losing what’s precious and having it restored. In Twelfth Night, twins, a brother and a sister, are shipwrecked and lose contact; they think one another dead, each is alone in a foreign country. But disguises and mistakings cease, each finds love, and the play ends in unexpected reunion. Some think – the year when the play was written supports this idea – that Shakespeare put into this play his feelings after the death of his eleven-year-old son Hamnet, twin to Judith. In The Tempest, Prospero, banished with his infant daughter from his dukedom to a barren island, has raised her to adulthood and uses magic powers to effect a reconciliation with those who betrayed him and to secure Miranda’s happiness in love. The ideas suggested by these quotations are at work in Gow’s play about ordinary modern people.

Another feature in common with the two Shakespeare plays is music. In Twelfth Night a wise fool sings about not letting love pass by; Prospero’s island ‘is full of noises’ – songs of the little wood-spirit Ariel as he works to assist Prospero’s magic and to earn his freedom. Mendelssohn’s Dream, Wedding March and Nocturne, used in Away when poetry and performance take us beyond everyday life, again link us to Shakespeare – to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in whose magicked mistakings and reconciliation Coral sees her own longings and the transformation she is struggling to reach.

Why hark back to Shakespeare? It’s hard to avoid; his eloquence, variety of style, huge vocabulary (most of which is still current somewhere), and the fact that his plays still tantalise us, sounding our deepest thoughts and feelings – all this has had a huge role in forming our language and our literature. Besides, the school play sets up a discussion point, a friction with everyday reality. At least one character – Gwen – likes genteel, conformist manners but loathes high culture, and others might share her preference for a light musical over Elizabethan comedy.

Eight actors, or more (as imagined in Richard Wherrett’s Introduction); ten characters and sundry extra parts. Ordinary names – how on earth are we going to ‘get’ them, distinguish between these Toms, Jims and so on?

Any prentice playwright should study Gow’s first act as a model introduction. The two characters whose fate concerns us most are Tom and Coral. Tom, in high spirits, opens as Puck, the mover of magics. Nonetheless, there’s a slight chill: Gow’s play begins with ‘goodnight’ as the curtain rings down on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A portent? But this is comedy! On into the headmaster’s speech of clichés, conventional thank-yous, and unashamed failure with a non-English name, addressed into the audience as participants, not just witnesses. Roy’s reliance on formulas and would-be jokes highlights Tom’s energy and receptivity.

A very different scene sketches the awkward approach to one another of Meg and Tom. Three pages of shuffling, a sentimental gift, a shaking-off of sentimentality, and the desperate desire of both to be very cool, very frank, very . . . we do not see the continuation of this relationship till a similarly complex confrontation in Act 4 leaps to a suggestion that they ‘have sex’. Yet, all through three intervening Acts with only short appearances of Meg or Tom (and those related to other people), this embryonic relationship remains ‘present’, waiting for development.

If two teens talk this long, parents will interrupt – Meg’s mum and dad. Mum Gwen is a stunning caricature of the irritable wife and mother. Nothing is ‘up’ to her standards of neatness, manners, morals. The noisiest character in the play, Gwen seems to be almost too crude. But there is more to her, as we will discover.

Jim, her husband, has developed a tired tolerance – and compensates with great fondness for Meg, who is his fellow-sufferer from Gwen’s moods. When Roy, his mysteriously quiet wife Coral, and Tom’s parents Harry and Vic join them, talk turns to their differently planned, very Australian beach holidays. By Scene 3, practically a solo revealing Coral’s distress and Roy’s abrupt attempts to deal with it, we have two current events to anchor these people in their time. First there’s immigration (remember Roy stumbling over Miss Papa-something’s name) and anti-migrant prejudice. Gwen stuns us – and Meg – with her contempt for Tom’s English family – outsiders! – whose life (‘both work, don’t they? In a factory, isn’t it?’) and holiday gear (‘a lean-to’) challenge and disgust her.

Gwen: They have no special privileges. No one asked them to come out to this country. They have no right to behave any differently.

It is Gwen who shines light on what’s wrong with Coral: ‘She looks awful, poor woman. Her son, you know.’ The play is dated 1967–68, but it’s not until Act 2 that we find out that Coral’s son, conscripted to fight in Vietnam, has been killed.

What economy! Last speech in the school play; end-of-term talk; and Coral’s minute of high-tension babble – in which she exposes her despair and intuits the precariousness of Tom’s existence. The language is everyday, except for Coral’s heightened, almost hysterical outpouring. Yet here are all the characters, and the plot has been set in motion; it remains only to send these families to their destinations – some unexpected. Away they go!

But this is no mere episodic travel diary. There is shape to the action: in Act 5, all will return for the new term. Mislaid gifts will be given and fraught relationships restored; there will be another play to study. Till then, the action turns to ‘away’ – to a resort hotel, to the beaches where Meg’s family park their caravan and Tom’s camp out in a tent. A director might use elaborate scenery and props or almost none at all; nonetheless the consciousness of sea and space, of places where the people you meet are strangers, fills Acts 2, 3 and 4.

The four scenes of Act 2 take the three families through their preparations and mental positioning before setting out. Tom’s dad, in throes of unease, urges Tom to enjoy the holiday, partly for his mother’s reassurance – but doesn’t explain just why. Gwen worries and nags Meg over every detail of packing; Meg deflects this and only with her dad, afterwards, asks why he puts up with it. He recalls the 30s Depression, World War II, constant worry, the effort to be able to provide. Jim’s real appreciation of Gwen’s part in this may come as a surprise; theirs is a solid relationship, forged in hard times.

Very different is the fraying relationship of the headmaster and his wife. Their son’s death has sent Coral into deep and long-lasting alienation and loneliness. Roy, himself stoic, complains: he has changed schools several times to distance community disapproval of his ‘strange’ wife. Now, he tells her, she must change, or . . . She tries to promise, but can hardly open her mouth without recalling their loss.

Scene 4 reprises Scene 1: now it’s Tom’s mother, urging him to enjoy the holiday so as to reassure his father. It’s comic, pathetic – they circle one another, keeping their perilous secret which is no secret from Tom.

How will these predicaments develop? Act 3 gives us before-the-storm events: Coral, now compulsively talkative, is mechanically extracting the emotional histories of fellow hotel-guests. But there is change: a young man on his honeymoon, who is in mixed minds about it, focuses her attention. Does she see in him a man like her son, in distress? Somehow sympathy enfolds them, real communication. Roy extracts her from the conversation, but, significantly, Coral has engaged with another’s misery.

With Meg’s parents the development is farcical. Back home, Gwen was right, right, right, about Jim having the keys, not her. But now it becomes clear that she’s to blame for Jim’s Christmas gift being left behind. Typically, she changes the subject, turns on Meg, then rushes off for headache powders. All the same, Jim recalls their courtship, young Gwen’s resolve and toughness (in the words of another ‘play’, Gone with the Wind) – it’s all still alive for him. And then, the other side of this: a delegation of caravan-campers provides a nightmare enlargement of Gwen’s defensive snobbery: they demand Jim join them to exclude ‘undesirables’ and develop the campsite. Just as well Gwen’s – away!

Breaking point for Roy: Rick and Coral whispering in the dark on the hotel roof. Roy’s hurt and confusion are complete. He’ll ‘send her away’ to shock treatment – keep her under lock and key – stop her from bothering anyone. ‘You won’t see another living person. I’ll look after you. I’ll come and see you.’ Can Coral, taking the room-key (another key!) ‘have a good think about what you said’ and ‘be fine’? We don’t know.

The midsummer stage-storm, magicked up as in The Tempest, is a turning point. Camping gear and distinctions gone, the conflicted families are castaways on a secluded, fair-weather beach – the same ‘next beach’ Harry, Vic and Tom, happy with their Christmas presents, seek out after the storm has passed them by.

Who could foresee this site of transformations? The revelation of Tom’s illness brings new feelings to Gwen, who suddenly rejects headache powders and opts for life, enjoying the warm seawater. The same revelation inspires Tom and Meg’s second meeting, where he recounts the doctor’s suggestion that he should experience sex. Meg is her father’s daughter (remember him tearing up the campers’ mean plans?); she is not seduced by this patriarchal special pleading. Tom’s humiliation morphs into rescue as artist-woman Coral arrives (Roy nowhere in sight), with kindling, to enact a play with this other threatened young man. Most wonderfully she, as the mermaid who must endure pain if she is to walk on land, achieves with his support ‘a step forward, then another, then another’, imaging her return to normality. Her insight into Tom has been strangely reciprocated and rewarded, and her kindling has become a bonfire – life and light. All turn towards it, except Harry and Vic – their accepted destination is grief.

Act 5’s wordless scene of reconciliation is perhaps the most affecting and joyful in the play: the gift given, the sea-change received. Reversing the play’s opening, its final words raise the curtain on Shakespeare’s darkest and most majestic tragedy, centred on the desolate heath where Lear loses his mind – Away touches on this territory. It is Tom, in the morning sunshine, who announces the approach to a different mode of existence as Lear, accepting that he will ‘crawl towards death’.

I love this play. Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age is my other Australian favourite; both going into uncharted regions, both anchored in Australian realities. Away is lucidly constructed. Its simple action of an outing and a return ranges wide, between near-horror and high farce. Its ordinary people are complex and even surprising. Away must tempt any actor with its deft, natural talk. And it is a visionary play, setting daily life against the deeper understandings that challenge words, images and music to express them.

© Copyright Judith Rodriguez 2014