A new work by one of Australia’s award winning writer/directors, Michael Gow, Once in Royal David’s City is an Epic (in the true theatrical text book sense), Australian story all neatly wrapped up in a red Christmas bow. Now let’s unwrap it.
Set in northern New South Wales, Will Drummond (Jason Klarwein), a Brechtian theatre director with Marxist sensibilities, plans to spend the holidays with his mother, Jeannie (Penny Everingham), in a beach-side house to help her recuperate from the loss of her husband (his father) only a few weeks earlier. When his mother also falls ill and is hospitalized, Will’s beside vigil forces him to rethink his life, career choices, and role in society by revisiting some of the pivotal moments in his life.
Any play set at Christmas time automatically conjures an atmosphere of joy, fun, merriment, hope (and a little family chaos). But when tragedy strikes, it seems to make that time of year all the more emotionally charged – especially since the annual tradition will act as a reminder of missing family members or loved ones, making Christmas never quite the same again.
There is so much packed into this unassumingly staged play – a nod to Brecht and Epic Theatre, there are no bells and whistles (except for dream-like sequences with smoke machines, starry lights, and shadow puppets projected onto curtains, lit by Matt Scott). The open, sparsely designed set (Stephen Curtis), was transformed by the simple words of the narrator, with a few set pieces such as a chair or a hospital bed, and curtains to delineate between holiday house, airport, and hospital, leaving our imagination to create our own spaces.
It has a play-within-a-play feel to it (including a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest), with various cast members breaking the fourth wall to narrate to the audience, while other cast members or stage crew walk past the actor in focus, handing them a prop ready for the next scene. The random Christmas dance sequences (choreographed by Nerida Matthaei), were especially enjoyable, and helped to inject some light-heartedness into an otherwise heavy themed play.
My non-thespian plus one commented that there seemed to be a lot of in-jokes and commentary on the state of theatre, the value society places on actors and their modest remuneration.
Jason Klarwein as both Will (and the narrator), navigated with ease the complexities of a man dealing with an existential crisis brought on by middle age, societal views, his artistic ambitions, and the mortality of his parents (and in turn, his own life).
The rest of the talented ensemble (Adam Booth, Penny Everingham, Emma Jackson, Toni Scanlan, Adam Sollis, Kaye Stevenson, Steve Turner), create numerous ancillary characters from diverse backgrounds; a teacher, foreign doctor, a stalking hospital ward bible basher, and Jeannie’s best friend. Special mention must be made to Steve Turner who embodied each character with nuanced brilliance.
A multi-layered play, this is one for the intellectual theatre goer, and is especially suitable for the school curriculum with its themes of family, friendship, loss, politics, diversity, sexual identity, and religion.
Sam Strong makes his impressive directorial debut with Queensland Theatre in this co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company. Strong has done an excellent job unpacking these complex multi-faceted themes to present a thought provoking Brechtian influenced play in digestible chunks that didn’t confuse or overwhelm the audience.
Once in Royal David’s City is now playing at QPAC’s Playhouse till May 14.