Roslyn Packer Theatre, July 22


Among the wonders of life is that most of us aren’t obsessed about death until we’re confronting it – and some not even then. Death constantly clouds Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, infusing each character with acceptance or denial. Death is inevitable thanks to radiation sickness, humanity having destroyed itself in a nuclear war. With the population of the Northern Hemisphere already eliminated, those in Melbourne await their inevitable fate.

Tony Cogin, Tai Hara and Elijah Williams. Top: Tai Hara and Emma Diaz. Photos: Daniel Boud.

For a planet currently beset with the fires and floods of terminal climate change, pestilence, famine and a war in Ukraine that can turn nuclear at Putin’s whim, the relevance of an end-of-the-world scenario is chilling. Surely this was reason enough to have confronted us more and reassured us less.

The book’s characters carry on with their lives because it’s the only option, even as you feel death breathing on them at every turn. Where the novel is a disturbing, depressing nailbiter, Tommy Murphy’s adaptation (for Sydney Theatre Company) is lighter: sprinkled with a glitter of hope that partly dilutes the tension.

If it largely shrugs aside a sense of doom, it doesn’t make the mistake that Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film did, of excessively foregrounding the affair between US submariner Commander Dwight Towers (Tai Hara) and party girl Moira Davidson (Contessa Treffone), but it’s no more successful at catching the book’s elusive essence. Too many scenes feel diffused by the big Roslyn Packer stage, and those between Dwight and Moira and between married couple Peter (Ben O’Toole) and Mary Holmes (Michelle Lim Davidson) lack much sense of intimacy.

Ben O’Toole and Matthew Backer. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Yet there are also moments of pure theatrical magic in Kip Williams’ production, including brilliantly effective dream sequences, crowd scenes throwing up looming shadows, and designer Michael Hankin’s non-literal set having a vast white gauze that billows as it tracks downstage, creating a poetic radiation cloud.

Hara stands out with his restraint, notably when facing Submariner Swain (Elijah Williams), who has jumped ship, desperate to confirm the fate of his parents and girlfriend. So does Matthew Backer as scientist John Osborne, who routinely lights up the stage his wit. By contrast Treffone’s delivery of Moira’s innuendo-laden dialogue is wearing. O’Toole, who recently excelled in A Streetcar Named Desire, is reduced to shouting his way through an overwrought, denialist version of Peter Homes, and his domestic exchanges with Davidson are too arch.

Until August 12.