Away (Malthouse/STC)

5 May 2017 | 3:32 pm | Maxim Boon

"Matthew Lutton is one of the most exhilarating directors in Australia today."

When a piece of theatre ought to zig, Malthouse Theatre Artistic Director Matthew Lutton zags with fearless confidence. While he's only midway through the second season of his tenure, his programming has already made a powerful statement about his commitment to championing the obscure, the innovative, and the searingly defiant.

And nowhere is this more apparent than in his own productions. Tackling source material pointedly steeped in either historical or popular reverence, his reinventions of time honoured narratives have revealed Lutton to be a master of subversion. He's proven this with literary classics, as in his astonishingly chilling adaptation of Joan Lindsay's Picnic At Hanging Rock. He's proven it with arcane masterworks, as in his radical and divisive reimagining of Marlowe's Edward II. And now, he's given a tried and true staple of Australian theatre the same treatment - Michael Gow's much loved Away.

This is perhaps the most audacious and yet most sensitively handled production in Lutton's canon of Malthouse genre-busters. His previous remakes have had the advantage of at least some degree of theatrical ownership, using the bare bones of a plot as the scaffolding for original dialogue. Tackling an existing text — and one considered to be a true classic of Australian theatrical literature — has not blunted Lutton's ingenuity, however.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Focused on the archetypal suburban Australia of the late '60s, there is something innately prosaic in Gow's story, as it explores how the hairline cracks in a family's relationships can split wide open under the stress of a holiday getaway. But despite this seemingly ordinary premise, Lutton and his cast approach this text with the same careful attention to the cadence and canter of words as you'd expect from Shakespeare.

Indeed, the presence of the Bard is writ large throughout this staging. Rather than allowing '60s Australiana to dictate his production's identity, Lutton mines the Shakespearian subtext, repeatedly conjuring the fantastical spectres of A Midsummer Night's Dream from the play's opening, invoking the purging maelstrom of The Tempest (with a truly breathtaking scene change) at the play's pivotal centre, and closing with the realisation of nature's mortal limits at the final scene's reference to King Lear. Throughout, the character of Tom (Liam Nunan) - a terminally ill aspiring actor, whose bright future will never be realised - is ever-present, watching as events unfold. Much like Puck or Ariel, he may already be an otherworldly creature, released from his earthly bonds.

Lutton's rendering transforms Gow's yearning parable about the toll of denying secret emotional burdens from a work of harmless escapism into a feverish, woozy hallucination, where the peaks and pits of human emotion are amplified to near psychosis. And yet for all its stylistic hyperbole, the cast still unearth the ultimate truth of these characters with total clarity.

Particularly impressive is Nuan's Tom, as he rations out the emotional gravity of his fate, finally revealing the full force of his fear in a single perfectly judged moment. As Meg, Tom's friend and the object of his futile desire, Naomi Rukavina brings uncanny charm to her account, as she challenges the unprovoked ire of her shrill, controlling, powder keg mother, Gwen. In that role, Heather Mitchell masterfully balances her character's sneering, sour temper, without allowing her performance to devolve into a pantomime shrew. When she finally sheds her angry armour, revealing her anxious vulnerability beneath, the power of this change is utterly arresting.

As the mentally unstable Coral, tortured by the pointless death of her son in the Vietnam War, Natasha Herbert also negotiates with incredible skill a role that could easily curdle into melodramatics. Her desperation and despair are all the more heartbreaking for the lucidity she gifts this character. Equally top-drawer are Marco Chiappi as Gwen's browbeaten yet loyal husband Jim, Glenn Hazeldine as Coral's exasperated, out of his depth husband Roy, and Julia Davis and Wadih Donah as Tom's pommy parents, Vic and Harry.

Lutton's vision for Gow's great Australian play may not connect with more conservatively minded theatregoers, and despite my admiration for this staging, I wouldn't want every production of Away played this way. But the vivid intelligence that resonates throughout this production is indicative of an artist in the pursuit of something other to the current status quo. This is the kind of restless, reaching creativity that propels an art form into the next stage of its evolution. The fact that he's willing to take such uncompromising risks and stay steadfastly true to his creative principles is precisely why, in my humble opinion, Matthew Lutton is one of the most exhilarating directors in Australia today.

Malthouse Theatre presents Away till 28 May.