August 01, 1998

On top of the world

On Top of the World
by Michael Gow
Melbourne Theatre Company
The Space

After a whistlestop tour of regional centres from Wagga and Launceston to Griffith and Russell Street, the MTC production of Europe has set up for what deserves to be a successful season in the Space.

For one thing, it is a good play and a keen reminder that Michael Gow deserves being made a fuss of. It is also a play that says more about history and Us and Over There than his Bicentennial 1841 ever managed. In fact, it is hard to believe the two plays were written by the same person. Europe is a shrewdly modest work with considerable resonance. That Gow could get away with such a large title for such a little play is proof of his gift.

On the face of it, we have an engaging account of the reunion, in an unidentified European city, of Douglas, OS for the first time, and Barbara, a continental actor who had been touring in Sydney the year before. In their awkward attempts at realignment on different territory they examine home thoughts and those abroad as well.

Gow adroitly balances a love story with an often amusing and trenchant study of cultural collision. Douglas is the innocent abroad – in Europe at last, amazed by cities with medieval parapets and theatres that look like bars or aeroplane hangars or museums. Barbara is urbane, worldly and triste.

They are poles apart. When she scathingly tells Douglas he has no past he angrily retorts – “how lucky you are having two million years of blood soaked history.”

“I can go on and on too,” says Barbara, “I can say that your newness, your freshness, your freedom from tradition attracted my world weary, neurotic decaying European sensibility. I can say you represent all the things that are missing from my life: romance, laughter, space, clear dazzling· light. But I would be talking in cliches. It would have no meaning.” In boldly, baldly dealing in contraries Gow certainly runs the risk of cliche but he flies by those nets with the sheer fluency and good humour of his dialogue.

Director Roger Hodgman and actors Helen Morse and Paul English have taken every opportunity afforded by Gow’s text to present assured, intelligent theatre that is a delight to watch. The pace is brisk but never superficial and Morse and English bring witty and touching detail to their performances. English works his apparently simple lines to shape a character who is naive but not imperceptive, unpretentious but not unsubtle. His Douglas makes large speeches but he gets away with them with inches to spare.

Helen Morse’s Barbara is nicely poised – accomplished, stylish but also a touch neurasthenic. She convinces us that her character has been playing Hedda Gabler too long for her own good. Her distinct accent, necessary to counterpoint Douglas’s lazy colonial vowels, is effortlessly maintained. This is fine, careful acting.

With Shaun Gurton’s uncluttered, functional set with one-size-fits-all facades, Hodgman ensures unfussy scene changes from dressing room to apartment, cathedral to sidewalk café and Jamie Lewis provides an unobtrusive but effective lighting design.

Far from becoming jaded this production has been invigorated by months on the road. At a time when most first-rate theatre is confined to capital cities it is heartening to think that work of this calibre has toured widely. How can any of us stay down on the farm now that we’ve seen Europe.

“On top of the world” The Adelaide Review, No. 54, August, 1988. P.30.

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