Roslyn Packer Theatre, May 27


Marilyn Richardson. Photos: Prudence Upton.

How to die? With grace? Rare. With dignity? Rarer. And attempting it with courage or good humour may fall short of the intent – regret being more likely. Playwright Patricia Cornelius wonders aloud about how we all die in Do Not Go Gentle, taking her title from the famed Dylan Thomas poem that exhorts us to “rage against the dying of the light”.

The winner of multiple awards, Do Not Go Gentle received an independent production in Melbourne in 2010, and then has waited 13 years for a mainstage airing. Perhaps that’s because of the sheer audacity of the plays’ ambition. Where most Australian works land us in predicaments the size of backyards or workplaces, this one lands us in predicaments the size of Antarctica.

Cornelius takes us on Robert Scott’s ill-fated 1912 attempt to lead the first expedition to reach the South Pole. When they did reach the Pole amid hellish conditions, it was to find that the Norwegian Amundsen had beaten them there by a mere 33 days. Bitterly deflated, they now faced a 1400-kilometre trek back to base, which they did not survive.

Peter Carroll, Vanessa Downing, Philip Quast, Brigid Zengeni, and John Gaden, Photos: Prudence Upton.

Cornelius lets her characters dance with death in their own individual ways: humorously, gloomily, poetically and painfully. The raw material negated a triumph-against-the-odds tale, but she does give us flashes of the triumph of the human spirit, primarily in the camaraderie that makes the pointlessness and regret almost bearable. Almost.

The play has an elusive tone and equally elusive poeticism. The latter is not just a matter of the words – although Cornelius plays with those like so many bouncy balls – but of conceptions and visions. When Paige Rattray’s Sydney Theatre Company production catches this elusiveness, play and production spiral together in exhilarating harmony. Sometimes, however, the production seems not fully committed to the play’s audacity, and sometimes that audacity overreaches itself, and falls into little pits of self-consciousness.

Philip Quast is a bearish Scott, whose keep-the-spirits-up joviality can seem plucked straight from Ripping Yarns, and yet he’s also central to several of the most poignant moments, notably in two beautifully staged love scenes between Scott and Wilson (Vanessa Downing), where the visual poetry entwines with the play’s quirky delight in falseness, with its humour and with its inner truth.

John Gaden and Peter Carroll. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Peter Carroll and John Gaden (with over 120 STC productions between them) team up, the former playing Evans and the latter an Oates tormented by inner demons. Brigid Zengeni is Bowers the navigator, here beset by dementia, and Josh McConville and Marilyn Richardson play figmental characters, with Richardson, in her first stage play long after retiring as an eminent opera singer, hitting upon a heightened style that perfectly complements the text (also gracing the work with her singing).

Exceptional ensemble scenes abound, including an amusing one with the expedition members all upright in their sleeping bags, and another in which they complain about their assorted ailments – even Downing’s amusing Wilson, who previously had been a figure of comically incongruous optimism while confronting the jaws of death.

Charles Davis’s design is a thing of wonder: a literal Antarctica that allows for the play’s shifts to more figurative realms, aided by Paul Jackson’s lighting and James Brown’s chilly score. It’s those shifts that make the play so special. One moment we’re watching the characters, and the next we’re tumbling amid the avalanche of thoughts in their heads: thoughts that define lost, brave, loving, lonely souls, all waiting to die.

Until June 17.