info I contact
advertising
editorial schedule
acknowledgements
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter
donate

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive

contents

  
The Season at Sarsaparilla, Peter Carroll, <BR />John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Hayley McElhinney The Season at Sarsaparilla, Peter Carroll,
John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Hayley McElhinney
photo Tania Kelley
FOR PATRICK WHITE’S THE SEASON AT SARSAPARILLA, DIRECTOR BENEDICT ANDREWS AND DESIGNER ROBERT COUSINS HAVE WONDERFULLY CRAFTED A COMPLETE CREAM BRICK HOUSE PLACED IT ON A REVOLVE SO THAT IT CAN BE SEEN 360 DEGREES AND EACH ROOM PEERED INTO BY THE AUDIENCE. EITHER SIDE OF THE HOUSE ARE TWO LARGE SCREENS THAT OPEN UP OUR OCCASIONALLY LIMITED VIEW OF WHAT’S GOING ON INSIDE. THE PERVERSITY OF OUR CURIOSITY (AND ITS REALITY TV CORRELATIVE) IS BROUGHT LOVINGLY HOME BY THE CAMERAS INSTALLED WITHIN. LEFT OF THIS FRAME, COMPOSER ALAN JOHN (ALSO PLAYING DEEDREE AND MR ERBAGE WITH VERVE) SITS AT AN ORGAN PLAYING EERIE NEAR-SUBLIMINAL MINIMALIST PATTERNINGS THAT INITIALLY EVOKE SOAP OPERA BUT AMPLIFY ANDREW’S DREAMLIKE VISION OF WHITE’S UNDERRATED PLAY.

There’s something very, very real about White’s version of 50s-60s Australian suburbia, for those of us who lived through the period, captured here in the solidity of this house and the acuity of the costume design (Alice Babidge). But White’s is a naturalism seen through the eyes of a poet and satirist who happened to write great novels. Andrews and Cousins aptly counter the solidity of the real by merging the lives of the three families at the centre of The Season at Sarsaparilla into one house, all going about the domestic business of family building and disintegration side by side, each oblivious to the other. The device underlines the mundane uniformity of suburban life but equally, and powerfully, amplifies stark differences of social origin, standing, expectation and personality. Above all, the atomisation of social life is acutely felt—all these people living so near and yet so far apart. Yes, there is social contact, but much of it is provisional as individuals bump into each other outside as the house turns or an incident yields a temporary gathering. Outdoors has an air of the illicit, and it’s where the bitch in heat, in the midst of a heatwave, yowls generating a moody oppressiveness and much discussion from the play’s beginning.

Once again the STC Actors Company proves itself a formidable team, here realising the characters who populate White’s Sarsaparilla with finely modulated performances aided in part by the intimacy of delivery enabled by head mikes and video closeups. The result is an intense interplay of innocence, cynicism, detachment and sensuality and subtle revelation of character. Andrews has, as well, been adept in addressing the structure of the play. In an important move, he reduces a potential imbalance in the relative weight of the characters by shifting some focus away from Roy Childs (Eden Falk) in the merging of the households and, as Sydney reviewer James Waites has noted, keeping him off-camera, making him just another character rather than a dominant commentator (www.sydneystage.com.au, March 9).
The Season at Sarsaparilla; Pamela Rabe, Eden Falk and Hayley McElhinney, on screen - Martin Blum and Emily Russell The Season at Sarsaparilla; Pamela Rabe, Eden Falk and Hayley McElhinney, on screen - Martin Blum and Emily Russell
photo Tania Kelley
The growth towards adulthood of Judy (Hayley McElhinney) and especially Joyleen ‘Pippy’ Pogson (Amber McMahon) provides the production a clearly articulated emotional and thematic trajectory. It’s a dark education which in Pippy’s case becomes entwined, if at a distance, with the potentially tragic relationship between the sanitary worker Ernie Boyle (Brandon Burke), his wife Nola (Pamela Rabe) and a seducing interloper, Ernie’s old army mate, Rowley ‘Digger’ Mason (Colin Moody). The emerging friendship between Nola and Pippy provides one of the production’s most poignant scenes, here framed by a wirescreen door, the girl lying across the woman’s lap, not long before the most emotionally demanding moment in the play—the reconciliation of Ernie and Nola. McMahon portrays Pippy’s growth with a determined curiosity at odds with a child’s physical awkwardness. Rabe evinces the terrible weight of Nola’s self-knowledge about her moral weakness as near tragic. Moody’s frighteningly manipulative Digger is also self-aware, but too late. Burke, plays the reticent Ernie to perfection, revealing enough sense of betrayal and the white heat of anger to unnerve Nola, Digger and us without, in the end, losing the man’s dignity.

No less important, but providing rich context and revealing counterpoint, are the parent Pogsons, Girlie (Peter Carroll) and Clive (John Gaden), the quietly determined Ron Suddard (Dan Spielman) in pursuit of Judy, the soon-to-be-parents the Knotts (Martin Blum and Emily Russell), the sad Julia Sheen (Helen Thompson), pregnant to Mr Erbage (Alan John) and, of course, Roy Child. Carroll’s Girlie is one of the production’s surprises. Never a monster (David Marr describes Robyn Nevin’s version as a ‘monstrous’ figure in Jim Sharman’s 1976 production), Carroll’s Girlie is certainly not harmless but is too lost in fantasies of what she might have been to be really dangerous. Girlie is the downside of 50s optimism. White celebrates the era’s hopefulness ironically with bursts of “razzle dazzle”, intermittent celebrations of Sarsaparilla life. To Roy’s final account of the flowers, colours, births and dramas of this little world, the house sweeps around and outsize confetti falls like a summer shower (magically lit by Nick Schlieper).

Benedict Andrews once again displays continuity of vision and extends his exploration of theatrical possibilities in creating a Sarsaparilla that is real, that is dream and nightmare. Without mimicry, he creates a dream aura by working the cinematic possibilities of the stage, shifting point of view with the revolving stage (in a striking passage Nola runs through the turning house), provides closeups and frames action in doors and, as in Eldorado for Malthouse, through windows, here the kitchen through which we witness most of the play’s action—watching meals served and eaten, papers read, dishes washed and bodies looking out and pushed against glass. Likewise, the gold that rains down in Eldorado’s dream of wealth becomes the razzle dazzle of Sarsaparilla’s ordinary hopefulness.

White’s play is essentially comic, stopping just short of tragedy, and Benedict Andrews is true to the playwright’s vision. There’s plenty of humour (Girlie: You can’t be too careful! You can’t call your teeth your own once you get inside a hospital), there’s a new baby, marital reconciliation, Roy sets out for a new life, but above all there’s a joyful theatricality implicit in the text and made explicit here—a magical set, cross-dressing, music, special effects—and a truthfulness (with words, images, cameras) to a play about what you see, or think you do:

Judy: We shall never see anything through each other’s eyes.

Roy: Nobody does...really. That doesn’t make it tragic.

Judy: Oh, but they do! Some people do! I’m convinced.

10 days on earth

Hearing that Ronnie Burkett was to operate his marionettes from above in the classic manner for 10 Days on Earth, I was apprehensive having so enjoyed his presence onstage amidst his creations in Tinka’s New Dress on an earlier visit to Australia. I need not have worried, for although the focus was very much on the marionettes, Burkett remained visible throughout the performance, providing all the voices and a few quips direct to the audience. After a while a double enjoyment developed, a freedom to absorb the onstage action and be simultaneously alert to Burkett criss-crossing the top of his set-cum-marionette theatre, stepping over large gaps in the structure, choosing from multiple versions of his charges from their racks, later replacing them and, above all, generating the most nuanced gestures and moods in his puppets with the slightest of movements.

In 10 Days on Earth, Darrel, a simple minded middle-aged man lives with his mother and knows nothing of his father. His mother dies and for ten days, without being aware of her departure, indeed thinking she’s punishing him, Darrel re-lives the past and escapes into the fantasy world of his favourite storybook characters Honeydog and Little Burp, a duckling. Compared with Darrel’s old, Edwardian, timber-lined home, this fantasy world (a theatre within a theatre) offers Burkett free range for puppet magic and a riot of colour and campery—including a wonderful sheep, Blanche de Baa. Back in the real world, Darrel encounters a woman from the Salvation Army and Lloyd, an eccentric who lives on the street and thinks he’s God (and is an education in himself). In one way or another all of these characters help deliver Darrel enough reality for him to cope with a new life, although the resolution is surprisingly sudden for such carefully developed plotting. As always Burkett’s writing is as expert and as inventive as his puppeteering. 10 Days on Earth is a very complete, affecting work, offering insight into a very different experience of life and time.


Patrick White, The Season at Sarsaparilla, director Benedict Andrews, performers STC Actors Company, set designer Robert Cousins, costumes Alice Babidge, lighting Nick Schlieper, sound David Gilfillan; Sydney Theatre Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, opened March 2

Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, 10 Days on Earth, marionettes, costumes and set designed by Ronnie Burkett, lighting Kevin Humphrey; Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Feb 15-March 3

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 11

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back to top