By Darby Turnbull
Welcome back Patalog! After a 4 year hiatus which contained a global pandemic and one of their producers Ben Walter’s term in Harry Potter and the cursed child, one of our finest local companies returns to 45 downstairs with a smashing presentation of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.
First produced in 2000, Churchill’s play has been praised for the intense presence with which she explored the pervasive fear instilled in ordinary citizens in a world that’s crumbling. In her text nature, people and animals have turned on each other with ambiguous ferocity to the point where nobody can be quite sure who is ally or enemy from the rivers to the elephants. Churchill’s brutal lyricism is both an epic challenge and verbal gift for performers and once again Patalog has exceeded themselves by assembling an exceptionally strong cast.
The major coup being the great Alison Whyte, one of our finest Churchill interpreters.
Cassandra Fumi’s unsettling, atmospheric production is moody and embraces the ambiguities of the text and absurd mundanities. I do wonder if more explicit investigation into the world of the play would enhance the power, the genocide that is de-rigour for the population is presented almost as an afterthought, but the dilution serves the horror effectively.
The opening sequence takes place in a rural cottage where a young girl has seen something she ought not to and her aunt, Whyte exhibiting ferocious timidity both dispel and deflect the implication that her husband is committing gross acts of violence. Noray Hosny as her niece gives a laid back, innocent performance as her niece who’s been directed to disaffectedly deliver her lines in opposition to the grotesque things she’s been exposed to.
The second scene moves to a millinery factory as Lucy Ansell and Darcy Kent play two hat makers in a series of tense and whimsical exchanges where they construct increasingly elaborate headpieces and are drawn to each other as they timidly explore their places as artists and people operating within and in opposition to a totalitarian regime. Darcy Kent’s restrained performance exposes to some wonderful, revealing moments of subdued passion and pedantry underlied by burgeoning civilian fury. Ansell, it’s implied is playing the older version of the little girl from the opening scene is excellent at portraying her characters burgeoning radicalisation against a state of corruption that she’s come of age within.
Ansell really blows the roof off the theatre in the final scene where our three leads converge and Ansell and Whyte savour every word of Churchill’s brutal lyricism. Both women’s performances are harder and more jaded, Whyte especially adds some eccentric physical and vocal tics that add stupendous texture to her performance.
Dann Barber’s set and costume designs are masterful; columns of hat boxes, a detailed millinery station and a climax of absolutely stunning hats presented in a glamorously grotesque fashion show. As usual the sight lines at 45 downstairs are compromised but they do their best with the blocking and set arrangements.
Rachel Lewindon’s sound and Rachel Burke’s lighting compliment the text with some stunning visual and aural arrangements that have a way of getting under the skin that elevate the tension without distracting.
In a season where Melbourne is being treated to multiple Caryl Churchill short plays its a joy to see her work being performed with such tenacity by a company whose work continues to rise in quality.
Image: Cameron Grant