December 01, 1996

Cold Comfort

The Fire on the Snow
by Douglas Stewart

State Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

I admit to having some apprehension about this production. The advance publicity suggested eccentricity in the design and the idea of cross-casting struck me as arbitrary. And, having been raised on the boys’ own annuals of the fifties, I wasn’t sure there was much about the legend of Robert Falcon Scott that held any further interest for me either. However, as it happens, I had underestimated the strength and originality of Stewart’s text, director Michael Gow and the able cast who perform it. The Fire on the Snow is State’s most theatrically intriguing work this year and has provided a much-needed variation after the conventionality of much of the current season

If Lytton Strachey had ever written a sequel called Eminent Edwardians it would have included Scott. His poorly planned, feckless expedition to the South Pole was a ripping yarn bordering on Pythonesque. But in colonial histories the comparison with Amundsen always favoured folly. Somehow it was cheating to be well-organised. Better to have treated it like a rather long picnic, or a game of cricket in inclement weather. Scott’s failure -like Burke and Wills, or Rorke’s Drift, or Little Big Horn- became a proof of the perils of empire. Conquerors were really victims, dominance was an illusion. It is a hard-luck story which consoles the victor that it wasn’t such a pushover after all. And the stoic brevity of Scott’s diary was its finest heroic text, with its gallantry, chivalry, and the plucky acceptance of the umpire’s call.

Refreshingly, Douglas Stewart’s verse drama avoids much of this tub-thumping and Michael Gow has rightly observed a Beckettian aspect to the expedition, a grim absurdity neither laughable nor warranting the deceptive cloak of martyrdom. Written for radio, the play offers a text which is self-enclosed and Gow has wisely chosen not to enact what Stewart’s muse of fire has already achieved.

Instead, Gow has gone for transparency, the old Brecht-effekt. This is theatre without illusion. From the striking opening when the famous five rise from the pit like astronauts, or ghosts from the dead, the production is like a performed ballad. The introduction retails the facts- the stats, the deaths, the inescapable trajectory we will follow. Then Phyllis Burford, in evening dress like an MC on thirties network radio, narrates Stewart’s quirkily rhymed commentary. She sets a low key tone which serves the production well.

Gow and designer Anna Borghesi have opted for a show without snow- no glacial vasts, no dry ice. Instead there is some sort of mushroom mulch upstage and the vastness of the Playhouse mainstage is loaded with trek junk and littered with plastic and other discards. The point is made that the Antarctic has been treated like a vast dump and Scott’s footprint was the first in a procession of defilements. It is a laboured idea but when the stage screen lifts on to a tableau of trudgery – the expeditionary team in profile up a suspended ramp- the image remains powerfully of a march into mid-air, of effort without reward.

Robert Kemp’s costumes in subzero browns have the look of sepia photographs and the huge white backcloth slurped in inky blues is effective, as are the sparing use of national flags as the ultimate, and ironic, emblems of patriotic endeavour. A huge tentlike canvas is raised above a heap of oildrums, a square of black appears as intimation of a cairn in the distance. Visual approximations are presented on cue, never to illustrate, only as parallel.

Every aspect of the stage is visible- the hydraulics, the lighting grid, the electrics, the crew- it is performance as rehearsal; an idea more than half a century old but still, in this case, fresh in its completeness. The effect of the casting is all one with the anti-illusionist treatment. So the selection of Kate Roberts to play Evans and Judi Farr to play Scott, works well. Especially since Farr plays Scott in understatement, amplifying his uncertainty, the crankiness with Amundsen, his incipient impatience with his fellows- and other aspects in Stewart’s text which offset the cliches of the myth. It is a well-judged performance which counterpoints Edwin Hodgeman’s suitably orotund reading of Wilson, the staunch optimist who provides more of the derring-do, and whose peroration on death so enrages the devastated Bowers.

The Fire on the Snow is a meditation in the face of death. Oates, of I-am-just-going-outside fame, is vigorously played by Andreas Constantinou, delivering his deathless lines with upbeat theatricality- surrounded by an opiate vision of huge red roses. Kate Roberts’ Evans suffers the ignominy of falling first, while Peter Green’s Bowers rages against the scientific pragmatism of Wilson. And, strongest in Stewart’s text, is the final dialogue between Wilson and Scott, followed by Scott’s solitary vision of fiery oblivion- cut short by the literal clunk of the metal stage curtain.

Michael Gow has staged this text with originality and an oddly disconcerting vividness. Underscored by Paul Charlier’s pulsing, whispery, chugging soundscape and dreamily lit by Mark Shelton, Stewart’s cadences continue to succeed beyond the jingoism of empire, reminding us that the truth at the centre of the Scott saga is about waiting, and nothing to be done.

The Adelaide Review, December, 1996.

Coming Up in December

4 December, until 21st. The Venetian Twins, by Nick Enright and Terence Clarke. Aussie Goldoni featuring Paul Blackwell, directed by Warren Coleman. The Playhouse.

4 December. Linda and Vika at Norwood Town Hall.

8 December. Amnesty fundraiser. Human Rights Day. Salamasoul, Fruit and Cavan Te. Governor Hindmarsh 8pm.

from 30 December The New Rocky Horror Show. Directed and designed by Nigel Triffitt. Starring Dale Ryder, Jane Turner and Kamahl. Festival Theatre.

Also announced- 31 January Big Day Out at Wayville. The Prodigy, Supergrass, Sepultura, Beasts of Bourbon- and Soundgarden. Also Shonen Knife. And there’s more -You Am I, powderfinger, the Superjesus.

Womadelaide 97. Feb 28, March 1 and 2. Salif Keita is back. Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright, Radio Tarifa, Guo Brothers, Lunar Drive, Midnight Oil and Kev Carmody. More next month.

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