Christmas, Communism, Cancer and Coping: A Review of Once in Royal David's City
If the Black Swan State Theatre and Queensland Theatre’s joint WA premiere production of Michael Gow’s 2014 work Once in Royal David’s City could be summarised in a word, it would be ‘waiting’. Indeed, the opening scene in which we are introduced to the lead character, Will Drummond (played with glorious multi-dimensional vigour by Jason Klarwein) features him doing just that: waiting at an airport for his mother Jeannie (touchingly brought to life by Penny Everingham). It is nearing Christmas, and Will’s lack of direction in life becomes all the more evident through a series of flashbacks and short scenes alternating between the past and present. His interactions with a range of characters (played with impressive versatility by Adam Booth, Emma Jackson, Toni Scanlan, Adam Sollis, Kaye Stevenson and Steve Turner in varying roles) fill the gaps of his isolation and uncertainty, and another number is thrown into the equation: the arrival of his mother. The onslaught of subsequent events, laced with tragedy, force Will to stop, wait and attempt to make some sense of his hopes, beliefs and, ultimately, life, as the future is thrown into uncertainty.
As with virtually all Black Swan productions, the aesthetic quality of Once in Royal David’s City (designed by Stephen Curtis) is near-flawless. The simplicity of the minimalistic yet symbolic staging and props (reflecting the Brechtian style discussed and debated throughout the performance) serve to highlight the exemplary directorial work of Sam Strong, as well as the actors in executing the fast paced changes of set and corresponding movement that at times seems something of a dance (and literally is in one particular scene). Skilful manipulation of lighting also contributes to the contrasts in mood (executed by lighting designer Matt Scott). Michael Gow (best known for his 1986 play Away) has long been acknowledged as one of the most important Australian playwrights of the last fifty years, and the quality of writing in Once in Royal David’s City fully justifies this acknowledgement. Gow presents the actors with a palette of emotions from which to work with, with sharp moments of humour interspersed within even the most sombre of scenes.
Once in Royal David’s City is a patchwork-blanket play of many ideas stretching far and wide: Brechtian theatre and teaching, Communism and mortality, love and time and words. In a world of increasingly frantic pace and desire for control over one’s situation, Once in Royal David’s City is a fascinating foray into the human condition, artistry, memory, identity and the age old question from Professor Julius Sumner Miller: “Why is it so?”
The answer is one we, like Will Drummond, can only wait for.