September 01, 2006

Coming Home to Away

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


Michael Gow talks about his play, Away, currently on a national tour twenty years after its first performance.

Murray Bramwell

When the Griffin Theatre production of Away opened at the Stables in Sydney on January 7, 1986, no-one, least of all thirty-one year old playwright Michael Gow, had any idea what a successful, and much beloved play it would become. Written swiftly between November 1985 and the following January the play reflected Gow’s preoccupations at that time:

“It was partly turning thirty and asking how did I get to be who I am – and others around me, how they got to be where they were. I was an actor in a production of King Lear at Nimrod. I was playing Oswald and various other spear carriers and I got to know the play backwards because I listened to it every night. I had already written The Kid which was an urban, gritty kind of piece and I remember thinking – ‘How do you get to the level where you have the kind of freedom to go anywhere and say anything that Shakespeare had ?’ And I thought – you just do it by ditching all the rules. If I want to write a scene here, or there, I can. But in Shakespeare there’s also this amazing form which he has complete control of. “

Reflecting on that time Gow recalls the mixed fortunes of various friends, some going off the rails, another making a fortune in banking, while their parents were going through divorce and such. All this mid-80’s upheaval somehow found itself called into a play set in Australia at the very beginning of 1968 – the hippie Summer of Love, but also the most vexed year of the escalating Vietnam War.

Gow’s play consists of three families going “away” for the summer holidays, each taking with them unresolved difficulties. Roy is a headmaster and he and his wife Coral are dealing with the recent death of their son as a conscript in war. Vic and Harry are an English working class couple whose schoolboy son, Tom, is seriously ill with cancer, while Jim, his abrasive wife Gwen and daughter Meg also are taking off on a break which is heading for breakdown.

The Shakespearean framework is deliberate as Gow explains –
“For a long time it was going to be As You Like It – leaving the city and going to the Forest of Arden – but I just couldn’t make it work. So I thought of other “away’ plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had a play-within-a play and Pericles because it has someone being brought back to life and a father daughter relationship.”

Of the 60s setting – when he himself was only in his early teens – he notes:
“It is only out of whack about five years. As a kid I had no friends my own age, they were all older. Because I was an only child I was already on my way to being a writer because I spent so much time observing everything. I found older kids more interesting because they were facing the call-up of the Draft and the expectations on them were enormous – of girlfriends and engagement and marriage. There were all kinds of cultural patterns to fit in to.”

That the play could so elegantly contain a sense of a world on the cusp of irrevocable change was not the result of Gow’s cool deliberation. He describes being called at short notice to provide a play for Griffin when their summer project had fallen through and wryly quotes Mark Twain – “nothing focuses a man like death and a deadline!”

He also had other things on his mind at the time – performing the title role in the Thalia Company production of Hamlet at the Adelaide Festival. “I was so obsessed getting Hamlet right that I wrote the play at nights and weekends. Then I went to the opening night and people said – ‘Well, this is good.’ It seemed as though it had happened without me.”

The play and – Michael Gow’s reputation – quickly gathered momentum.
After Griffin, it transferred to a sell-out season at the Sydney Theatre Company and, continued to the end of the next year, gathering major awards and a warm reception from audiences and critics in all of the state capitals. By 1989 it was a high school text in New South Wales and the script, published by Currency Press, had sold 10,000 copies. The play has been reprinted almost every year since and current sales exceed 100,000 copies.

While he had co-directed the play with Richard Wherrett in the late 80s, it was not until 1992 that Gow first directed Away himself. Now, as Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre Company since 1999, he has prepared a new production for an all cities tour marking the plays 20th anniversary.

I asked him how it feels to return to a play which has so dominated his list of works. “Fortunately I am still impressed by most of the writing, there are some really well-written scenes in there . And, because I am going in and out of the tour, I ‘m seeing it over and over again and haven’t yet gone – oh God ! – which is a great sign. I enjoy listening to it, and I like the production because the cast are a great bunch.

“I find it a sadder experience because a lot of the people who went into it – like my parents and their friends – are all dead now. So it feels more elegiac than in ‘86. It is, in a sense, more of a farewell than when it was written. It has a new ending – which alarms school teachers. When I did the play in 1992 I asked myself a lot of questions such as – when Tom has done his play on the beach is his function over and is his reading of King Lear redundant ? I decided to give the reading to Meg. Tom is there, but in another kind of present that’s all his own.

“Everyone says that Away is so much fun and so enjoyable. I think of it as a play about death. So I want to make this production mine and remind us of the darkness and malevolence. The performance history of the play is of school and amateur productions and I feel it is my duty to stand up for the other side of the coin. “ Even the fairies are not the little gumnut characters of some earlier versions. “These fairies are bad, and they have so much fun destroying Gwen’s caravan in the storm. That’s what it should be, they are little shits.”

But that doesn’t mean that the playwright is indifferent to that airy quality in the play which has made it so perpetually intriguing. I ask whether he marvels at the thirty year old who wrote the play ?

“Yes I do. I wish I could plug into that . There is a freedom and lightness to it and the interesting thing for me has been thinking about what I’ll do next. Revisiting Away has done that for me. I see how, in a page of dialogue, I’ve covered so much ground and conveyed so much information in a dramatic way. How did I do that – meditating on that has been really exciting.”

And, after periods of ambivalence about a play which very much defined Gow as a playwright, he is enjoying his new relationship with his famous work.
“I am incredibly grateful; that wherever it came from, it picked me. I marvel that it gives so many people pleasure repeatedly and it can be he subject of papers at conferences and school kids can say ‘I played Tom and I loved saying ’fuck’ on stage. It covers that range and I enjoy that.

“The notion of children dying before their parents is huge (and someone at STC once said to me – you know you have written an AIDS play, because 1985-6 was the worst of the epidemic) So it struck a chord – but with laughter and fun and madness in the face of it. And translating into a theatricality which says- Life is tough, but let’s have a bit of fun. Let’s run amok.”

The State theatre Company season of Away runs from 12-23 September in the Dunstan Playhouse

First Draft

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