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Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios.

Reginald Season 2014. Slip of the Tongue presents EUROPE by Michael Gow, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, in Chippendale. 10 – 27 September.

Michael Gow has written some 15 plays for the Australian repertoire and I believe he is one of the more interesting and consistent contributors to our performing arts culture. My favourites: THE KID (1983); AWAY (1986); EUROPE (1987); SWEET PHOEBE (1994); and TOY SYMPHONY (2007). This year Belvoir premiered his latest, ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID’S CITY. I confess, AWAY is one of my three top favourite (sentimental) Australian plays, alongside Ray Lawler’s, THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL (1959) and Peter Kenna’s A HARD GOD (1973).

EUROPE can be a vigorous and exciting entanglement. It begins back stage, in a European theatre, between a young, naive, Australian, Douglas (Andrew Henry), and an accomplished European actress, Barbara (Pippa Grandison), coming off-stage after a performance as Hedda Gabler, a year after a ‘torrid’ week of sexual entanglement, somewhere, at an Australian Arts Festival tour. Douglas is besotted and has become a backpacking ‘stalker’ – having saved his money and bought an air ticket to Europe, wanting to pick up where they left off. Barbara is bewildered and a busy professional actor sustaining her career, who has, decidedly, moved on with her life, and barely, has recall of who Douglas even is.

Over five, or so scenes, in a 75 minute one act form, a comic mismatch between New World and Old World values; between the ‘spring’ expectations of a young Aussie male, and the more mature ‘autumnal’ flutters of a European theatre aristocrat,  an odd couple ‘love story’, unfolds. Naivety and iconoclastic energies meets sophistication and tradition. Star struck delusions meet earth bound practicalities. And to make it a little more complicated: each inclines for the other, at different times; each spurns the other, at different times – a Scarlett and Rhett repeat, perhaps? – ne’er the twain shall meet?

In 1986, with the Hawke Government having passed the Australia Act “eliminating the remaining possibilities for the UK Government to legislate with effect in Australia”,  the tortured identity of the Australian and their relationship with Europe was a hot topic – a debate among the generations: between the traditionalists and the hopefuls of a new world, independent, Australian identity, was in the ‘air’. So, contextually, in 1986, the first performance production, in this heat of historical change, the play had a fast, furious, and serious satiric edginess. One was left in a state of punch drunked delirium with Mr Gow’s apt political cheekiness. This contemporary production, at the Reginald, by James Beach, has emphasis on the love story, and presents us with a decidedly relaxed tempo and a very broad tone to the comedy, with character rather than satire scoring the body of the laughs. It is more soapy ‘rom-com’ than satiric debate. Whether you prefer your comedy ladled with honey-drawn romantics, or comedy fast and catch-it-if-you-can wit, will dictate your response to this production.

In a ‘heavy’ visual design by Andrea Espinoza the production is unnecessarily ‘grounded’ and halted with luxurious scene changes and music cuing, with the lighting (Benjamin Brockman), misted with theatre haze, adding a mellowed Technicolor ‘humour’ to the events of the play. The acting, within the directorial guidance of this contemporary reading of the play, is accomplished if, a trifle too actorly, lacking real wit and sophistication, and leaning more towards ‘goofy’ physical comic schtick, than a bias to the intellectual verbal feast that Mr Gow, has put on the page. Mr Henry seems to be playing a young ‘gauche’, ‘tricking’ his actor’s offers with ‘characteristics’ to indicate character, rather than just trusting his own presence and accurate speaking of the text as enough for us to be onside with Douglas. Certainly, the wreath of vine leaves of victory on his brow, in the last scene, recharging the Hedda Gabler references from the play’s first scene, were not deserving to be there, if Ejlert Lovborg’s ‘genius’ was the signalled intention – and especially, since we all know what happened to Ejlert, don’t we?* Whilst, Ms Grandison is, sometimes, for me, just too obviously enjoying her performance, so Barbara, sometimes, disappeared.  I did, then, have time to ponder the possible quality of Barbara’s Hedda Gabler.

Others, enjoyed the work of the actors and the production, it seemed – maybe, it’s just that I have a context for the text of this play, from the heady times of 1986, and would you believe, still think that the satire of EUROPE is still mightily relevant today, and has the need for the same passionate knife-edge of delivery of yore. (In the near future, Old Europe reaching back to present day Australia: Buckingham Palace making, our Team Australia leader, with the touch of a ceremonial sword: Sir Tony Abbott, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle, with an official residence in Walmer Castle – following in the footsteps of dear Old Sir Robert! Who was it that revived the Lord and Lady thing, recently? A cunning plan.)

EUROPE, still a favourite of mine from the pen of Mr Gow. Go see for yourself.

*Ejlert suffered a fatal bullet wound to the stomach!