As the lights go down, the opening chords of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture hang delicately in the air. And then as the skittering music swells and dances, the cast of Away appear, costumed like characters from Shakespeare’s comedy. Performing a high-speed, masque-like zip through the play, Tom (Liam Nunan) then steps to the front of the stage to deliver Puck’s final speech – the lines, which open Michael Gow’s Away.

The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Away. © Prudence Upton

It’s a marvellous beginning to Matthew Lutton’s new production of the much-loved play – one of the most popular in the Australian canon. Framed by Shakespeare, Away begins with a high school production of the Dream and ends with words from King Lear, while other Shakespearean references (The Tempest, As You Like It) resonate.

Away premiered at Sydney’s intimate Stables Theatre in 1986 to a rapturous response and quickly sold out. Richard Wherrett directed a production for Sydney Theatre Company in the larger Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre the following year, and there have been numerous productions since.

Set over Christmas 1967, three families go away for a summer holiday at the beach – an Australian ritual that audiences instantly relate to. All of them are struggling in some way. British migrants Harry (Wadih Dona) and Vic (Julia Davis) are having to face their teenage son Tom’s terminal illness. Gwen (Heather Mitchell) and Jim (Marco Chiappi) worry about the growing independence of their daughter Meg (Naomi Rukavina) who has become friendly with Tom, while the inconsolable, crazed grief over the death of her only son in Vietnam that consumes Coral (Natasha Herbert) is threatening her marriage to Roy (Glenn Hazeldine).

Glenn Hazeldine and Natasha Herbert in Sydney Theatre Company’s Away. © Prudence Upton

Representing different social strata, Harry and Vic head off in their car with a lean-to tent, Gwen and Jim are returning to a camp site where they have a well-equipped caravan, and Coral and Roy are flying to a Gold Coast resort. After arguments and a storm, they all end up at the same, beautiful beach where Harry, Vic and Tom are staying. Secrets are shared, relationships forged and new beginnings are made possible.

At the same time, it’s about Australia at a time of change, as the country struggles with its identity, its attitudes to migrants and fears about a loss of innocence – captured beautifully in a scene at the campsite where the “regulars” lobby against too many newcomers. Encompassing themes of grief, death, loss, struggle, intergenerational conflict, reconciliation and the liberating power of nature, Away is a lyrical play, but some scenes and characters can easily tip into the grotesquely comic. It’s a delicate balance to get right.

Liam Nunan and Marco Chiappi in Sydney Theatre Company’s Away. © Prudence Upton

Directing a co-production for STC and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre where he is Artistic Director, Lutton takes a darker look at the play, “peering into the shadows that haunt this supposedly sunny, restorative play” as Gow puts it in the theatre programme. And with the world the way it is now, it’s certainly an interesting time to do it.

After the thrilling opening, Roy, the headmaster of the school, gives a speech about the play – very funnily delivered by Hazeldine. We laugh, recognising the character and the situation from any number of school or community events. However, as the production unfolds some of it feels over-wrought and the tone somewhat inconsistent. Some moments really land, others miss. The fact that there were smatterings of laughter through the auditorium when Harry began to tell Jim about Tom’s cancer showed that not everyone recognised the shift in mood, for example. And ultimately, the production isn’t as moving as it should be.

Designed by Dale Ferguson, the first part takes place on an abstracted stage with forest-like wooden pillars and a wardrobe, used by all the families. The sudden shift to the glitzy Gold Coast ballroom is the first of three dramatic stage transformations, and very cleverly done. Here, dark magic infiltrates the scene in the form of performers in Bottom-like ass’s heads mingling with the dancers (terrific choreography by Stephanie Lake).

Liam Nunan and Naomi Rukavina in Sydney Theatre Company’s Away. © Prudence Upton

The storm scene ricochets around the theatre, with real “rain” falling on stage, but the final set for the beach – a monumental, stark white space – doesn’t capture the sense of gentle balm offered by the beautiful, natural environment described (despite the sound of lapping water). Rather than feeling like a luminous, empty space where anything is possible, it feels sterile. Ferguson’s costuming is terrific though, capturing 60s fashion including some of its more horrendous offerings without going too overboard, speaking very much about the people wearing it. Paul Jackson’s lighting and J. David Franzke’s sound both add plenty of atmosphere.

Among a generally strong cast, Nunan gives a lovely, truthful performance as Tom capturing his youthfulness, tempered by the terrible knowledge of his terminal illness and the mature way he pretends to his parents to be unaware of it. Doubling as the newly married Rick, who Coral befriends at the Gold Coast hotel, he creates two distinct, believable characters that we care about.

Yet when it comes to Coral and particularly Gwen, Lutton pushes them almost to the edge of caricature. Mitchell is a beautiful actor capable of enormous emotional nuance. Here though, the approach has been to make Gwen so sour, strident and angry from the start that there is nowhere for her to go. By the time she gives her big, revealing speech about the fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities that drive her, it is somewhat lost because of all the angry outbursts before. No wonder there were chuckles when Jim says she’s not really an angry person, she just has “high hopes”. It’s a credit to Mitchell’s skill that she still manages to make us believe in Gwen’s very real pain.

With its Shakespearean references, Away is about reconciliation, acceptance of what life throws at you and finding a way to move forward. Lutton’s ending seems to suggest that there has been little real change. Holding the box of Christmas presents Gwen purposely left behind when they want away, she does appear ready to try and make amends but Jim walks away. Coral joins Roy in the dance they did as young lovers, but they too then go their separate ways. Perhaps I’m misreading it.

Glenn Hazeldine, Natasha Herbert and Liam Nunan in Sydney Theatre Company’s Away. © Prudence Upton

At the very end, the school students gather under a tree to read from King Lear. Tom has died. In the original production, it was Tom who uttered Lear’s words about dividing his estate between his three daughters so that he can “Unburden’d crawl toward death”. Gow subsequently revised it so that it is Meg who says the lines, and Lutton uses that version.

Away still resonates on many levels. The suspicion of outsiders and fear of change chime loud today, and the loss of a child will always be heart-breaking. But as Tom walks slowly off-stage while Meg reads from Lear, some of that magic is missing and the tears stay away.

Away plays at the Drama Theatre until March 25, then Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, May 3 – 28

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