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Old Man

Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Belvoir presents OLD MAN by Matthew Whittet in the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills.

OLD MAN by Matthew Whittet is a play in two parts (approximately 75 minutes long) that examines the relationship between a man and his father, and the same man and his own family. Part One begins with a monologue (not again! See MALICE TOWARDS NONE, I LOVE YOU, BRO and PORN.CAKE), one of several, given with a simple honesty by a father, Daniel (Leon Ford) recounting an ordinary morning that leads to a horrible revelation that his family has gone. Interspersed are other character monologues – spoken and unspoken – and minor duologue episodes between Daniel and his mother, Carol (Gillian Jones), his wife, Sam (Alison Bell), his daughter, Charlotte (Madeline Benson) and the young son, Harry (Tom Usher).

The second part has this ordinary family around a dinner table, interspersed with Daniel’s recent, first visit to meet his father, Albert (Peter Carroll) who deserted his family when Daniel was three. Daniel never knew (remembered) his father and never knew why this had happened. He knows little more, after the visit, when he returns to his family dinner table. It concludes with Daniel expressing his fear of abandonment to his family – the cause of his ‘dream’, perhaps – the pre-occupation of Part One.

The production is simple and straight forward, directed by Anthea Wiliams, with a very secure and gifted set of actors. Mr Ford is moving and subtly sophisticated in his journey as Daniel, as usual, guilelessly believable at a fundamental level of deep communicated honesty. Alison Bell as the distraught and loving wife and mother, Sam, gives a stirring and immensely charged performance. Her first two silent scenes of gathering distress, culminating in her monologue of her recollection of her first meeting with Daniel is acting at its best. There was a kind of raw, direct naturalism that seemed to risk revealing truthful emotional exposures, without any of the usual tendency to deflect with defensive irony or sarcasm, that I have usually detected – it was a great pleasure to watch and be affected. Not since Ms Bell’s performance in DOUBT, have I been so thoroughly seduced to believe her. Both Ms Jones and Mr Carroll are as simple in their acting offers as I have ever seen from them. It is interestingly, persuasive. The two young actors are well prepared but do not have the experience to be seamlessly honest or believable, they tend not to experience anew but repeat past work (always a risk, when a writer writes scenes of ensemble importance for child actors – in this case it interrupts the easy flow and created credulity of the tone of the production, it strikes false notes, all the more clearly, because of the excellence of the adult cast performances – a weakness, slight, but still an obstacle to total immersion, a flaw).

Mel Page has created a simple raised black platform with a small, breakfast wooden table, with three matching chairs and an alarmingly red (Freudian), mis-matched fourth. Her costumes are immaculate in their detail – both pleasingly real looking, and yet, art directed with wonderfully manipulated colour choices for character. Lighting by Hartley T A Kemp theatrically atmospheric. The score and sound design (Stefan Gregory) with the brief cello-like phrasings were too Philip Glass-like and too loud to slip stream the quick changes of scene shifts comfortably, for me.

Mr Whittet’s play is, in scale, a chamber piece. A very domestic small scale investigation of male fear of abandonment, especially between fathers and sons. There were times when I felt the first part stalled in its dramatic momentum and Daniel’s journey remained kind of static – ‘grinding in sand’. The simple dramatic conceits of Part Two were, on the other hand, painfully charted and successful. Powerful and modestly envisioned to domestic impact. A considerable development to  SILVER of a few years ago – also Belvoir Downstairs.

Recently, I have been working on Sam Shepard’s great play BURIED CHILD, tackling the great issues there of family, and father and son heritage. Vince’s speech, in the final act, telling of his drive into the night, fleeing from his family, only to be confronted with himself in the wind shield of his car where, he saw:

“…as though I was looking at another man. As though I could see my whole race behind him. Like a mummy’s face. … And then his face changed. His face became his father’s face. Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath. And his father’s face changed to his grandfather’s face. …. Straight back as far they would take me.”

These lines rose up while watching OLD MAN. My thoughts, also, were crowded with the great journey that was happening in the Upstairs Theatre, at the same time, with the father and son, Biff and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN (the production upstairs I have not yet seen) and could not help but compare the scale of vision of those two writers with Mr Whittet’s. Shepard and Miller writing work in a Symphonic scale (Mahler size) and a huge universal god-like sense scale of tragedy – Egyptian and Greek – whilst Mr Whittet’s remain house-bound and deeply personal. I don’t know, but I long for the yearning inclinations of the burgeoning  universal aspirations of Lawler’s THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL or Michael Gow’s AWAY in Australian playwrighting. I long for our writers to make a statement that is uniquely Australian and, yet, world embracing. Our writers are generally good but seldom focused on the stage of larger, world emotional ‘movements’, it seems. Is that why our cultural record on the world stage is so thin? Is that why the Sydney Theatre Company took a German play to the London Cultural Olympics and Europe, GROSS UND KLEIN, instead of an Australian text this year? Just a comparative thought. To think that Mr Stone’s play STRANGE INTERLUDE matches the cultural breadth of the Eugene O’Neill original, however (period) clumsy it is, is not possible.

OLD MAN in the Downstairs Theatre is worth catching as was FOOD in the same space last month.

Ironic isn’t it,? The two new Australian plays in the smaller venue have been more arresting than the work in the bigger space Upstairs. Does it have to do with the suitability of scale of space to our writers’ visions? The bigger space upstairs reveals the problems more clearly – the provincialism so blatantly?

I don’t know. I just pay to be transported. To be expanded in my life livings.