I’ve struggled coming to terms with the production of Ray Lawler‘s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll currently playing at QTC – a co-presentation with Belvoir Street in Sydney and directed by Neil Armfield. I saw it last Saturday at a matinee performance where Blazey Best performed the role of Olive. As I understand it, she is stepping in for Alison Whyte in the second half of the Queensland season. She was joined by the lanky Steve Le Marquand (Roo), Helen Thomson (Olive), Travis McMahon (Barney), the incomparable Robyn Nevin (Emma), James Hoare (Johnnie Dowd), and Eloise Winestock (Bubba).
As it’s affectionately know in the diminutive The … Doll is, in so many ways, a figurehead for the official start of modern Australian drama in the 1950s. It carries a lot of invisible baggage along with it, including the term ‘iconic play.’ There is also, perhaps, a certain smugness in the way we cuddle this one to our collective theatrical chest; it’s ‘our play,’ one we know and love and are proud of – notwithstanding the couple of generations of students who tend, on the whole, to loathe it or, at least, not to see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age! Certainly, it requires a mature palate for full appreciation. What I saw last week was a reinvention by stealth of the play I thought I knew. Neil Armfield’s fresh production made for an unsettling experience, and it tipped me out onto Southbank afterwards feeling wretched and uplifted at one and the same time.
The … Doll has been called, among other things, a tragedy of the incoherent, something I find is only ever realised fully on stage. I have played both Olive and Pearl, written about and taught it, seen the movie and several other productions, and feel I know it like the back of my hand. I think that’s part of my problem. This production unsettled me throughout and delivered a swift kick to the guts in its last moments. Armfield’s is an austere, astringent production that focusses on the tragedy at the heart of the work. It swirls everything before it, and what should be a trip down memory lane, a cuddly evening in the theatre with an old friend and a lot of laughs is anything but, and it’s remarkable because of it.
In those last moments, the mighty climax which comes in what feels like a false ending to the play, and in those seconds when I felt the pricking in my eyes and contraction in my throat, I was utterly confused. I could not understand how it had sneaked up on me. Of course I knew what was going to happen from the get-go – as you do with other great tragedies – things are not going to end well. There’s the horrible inevitability of the fate that crushes the protagonists under the weight of their incomprehension. What was it that grabbed me so hard? Was it because I had warmed to this Roo and Olive and Pearl and Barney, felt for them? Not particularly; the performances were oddly out of kilter for me – miscast even, in a couple of instances. Upon reflection I think it was Armfield’s theatrical reconfiguring of the expected domestic tragicomedy that did it.
I’ve been wondering whether he and designer Ralph Myers saw the potential of extending the ‘dear old corner’ of Belvoir street on tour so that it extended mightily upwards and outwards, sandstone coloured, complete with swooping staircase that no boarding house in Carlton or anywhere for that matter, now or then has ever boasted? I think maybe so – he writes about the problem of transferring the Belvoir staging to the Playhouse in the programme note. If it was deliberate, it’s a stroke of design genius or, at least, one of those genius coincidences that pays off in the execution. The set reminded me of nothing so much as the walls of a Greek palace, its dimensions towering over the humanity crawling around below. I know others have puzzled over the ‘inappropriateness’ of this aspect of the production and, of course, it is if you are looking for cosy Carlton naturalism. In this production the grandeur is part of the machinery of theatricality that puts its focus elsewhere.
The performances also took me by surprise. The … Doll is a piece of realism, complete with the kind of vernacular that, in the mouths of contemporary actors now seems quaint and out of time like Pearl’s New Year’s Eve savouries. It requires a naturalistic playing style, right? However, I kept being wrong-footed by delivery – my expectations and my own invisible baggage – being overturned beat by beat. It was unsettling – I couldn’t relax into the warmth and the ease of the play I knew. Instead, the characters were far more archetypical than I would have thought possible.
The actors seemed at times to be struggling with the naturalistic inclinations of the work, or were they simply finding the shape of the giant shadows cast by their roles? If the playing feels a little strained, if they look uncomfortable it only adds to the overwhelming sense – at least for this audience member – of being at arm’s length, of hearing and seeing things afresh. Wrong-footing the all-knowing audience so well and by stealth requires a sure touch. A bit of a triumph, Mr Armfield – thank you!
PS I’ve not called this a review. It’s more an incomplete reflection, if anything. What I do know is that this production confirmed my belief that good plays – old ones or those that suffer under the ‘classic’ or ‘icon’ banner, are well served by bold, assertive, informed productions. It’s where they belong.