October 01, 1995

Suspended Re-animation


The Floating World

by John Romeril

State Theatre


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It is timely to have State Theatre’s revival of John Romeril’s APG classic, The Floating World. Timely in that its subject matter- the experiences of Australian soldiers on what was then called the Burma-Siam Railway- coincides with the Australia Remembers project. But on closer inspection its themes sit uncomfortably with the blandness of the current celebrations. Fifty years on, Australia is remembering- but about as selectively as a witness at a Royal Commission.

The times which produced this play are not recognisably our own. Romeril and his co-workers at the Pram were writing and re-creating  the experiences of their fathers and uncles many of whom, in 1974, were in their fifties and still pugnacious advocates  of the RSL line. The war in Vietnam had, in the previous decade created a cavernous division between the generations -which expressed itself in every kind of oppositionality from the politics of politics to the politics of haircuts.  The Floating World is as much about the internecine warfare of the Whitlam seventies as it is about the horrors of  WW II.

Much of the energy  of the play comes from the accidental symbolism of real life. There really was a Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom Cruise.  In this very notion, as with his ubiquitous dippy birds,  Romeril finds his working paradox. The opening Drum Poem One is about the new Japanese invasion, the economic outreach of capital. While Les and Irene Harding tootle off to Tokyo, the planes bring in the investment bandits. This is very much part of the widespread public debate- epitomised in the middle Seventies by Rex Connor’s call to buy back the farm- about national ownership of resources and the curbing of multinational business control from the US, Japan or anywhere.  Such ideas, to put it mildly, are off the agenda. Now we can’t wait for the carpet -baggers, we send out our politicians to find them. If only, we sigh, Mr Gates would make us part of his window of opportunity.

Aware of a changed perspective and hypersensitive to the realities of Australian racism in the recent past, director Andrew Ross has, with some modifications by Romeril himself, given The Floating World a more Asian aspect. The kabuki elements were always there, along with a philosophic contemplation of the nature of the mind. But Ross has added puppetry, directed by Noriko Nishimoto and designed by Steve Nolan, to create a ceremonial calm to offset the virulent language and crass materialism of Ugly Australia.

The result is to make a verbally raucous play less so. But, given that it is made up of a number of long arias- the APG writers were often fond of a good monologue- the effect is also to make the production considerably more busy.  The detailed word portraits are echoed by puppet images- of the Japanese military, of the samurai of commerce, of spectres of death, even bonsai versions of Les and his good wife in deck chairs.

The main strength of this production is in the performances- particularly Peter Cummings and Carole Skinner in  the central roles. Interestingly, Cummings, who played the part of the Comic in the 1974 premiere, plays Les for the first time. Unlike the youthful Bruce Spence, the original Les, Cummings brings a stronger psychological, and more literal, dimension to the role. His Les is a morose, uncommunicative old digger, riddled with survivor guilt and the knowledge that when he  found a handful of vitamin B, instead of sharing with his mates (in the best Anzac spirit) he sculled the lot for himself. It cured his beriberi but the sight of the long-dead McLeod, inexplicably appearing on board the cruise ship, has all the terror of the ghost of Banquo.

As Irene, Carole Skinner astutely avoids the temptations of caricature. We have had enough Ednas and Shirley Purvis clones. Skinner finds a touching dignity in her character, perplexed by her husband, open to  new horizons, while,  at the same time, writing incessant postcards and perpetrating every possible cultural and verbal gaffe. She speaks for a whole generation when she says -“He never let me know.” Geoff Kelso struggles with the role of the Comic, held at arm’s length in order to distance the rancid humour, but never likeable enough to be funny in spite of himself. Edgar Metcalfe presents a recognisable stock type as Robinson, Edwin Hodgeman maintains an eerie stillness as McLeod and Singaporean actor, Lut Ali, as the waiter, effectively focuses the racial tension.

It is good to see John Romeril’s play receiving the attention it deserves. It is an important work, stylistically and thematically, and it helped clear the way for a strongly vernacular theatre. But like many breakthrough productions it succeeded so well in its theatrical objectives that now we cannot remember a time when our stage and its discourse was not our own. These days, his play, like Les himself, swims in front of us with uncomfortable truths and even less comfortable fictions. In the current realpolitik of regional diplomacy, The Floating World is, for a time, in a floating world of its own.

“Suspended Re-animation” The Adelaide Review, No.144, October, 1995.


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