House of Sand in association with State Theatre Company of SA. Old Queen’s Theatre. 21 Sep 2018
From time to time the term “tour de force” leaps forth in the theatre.
And, here it comes again to describe Terrence Crawford’s performance in the revival of Stephen Sewell’s 1980s play, Welcome the Bright World.
For all the fine work surrounding this production, it is Crawford’s triumph in a role he is re-inhabiting after a NIDA student production some 35 years ago.
Welcome the Bright World is a fierce foray into science and politics set in an era when computers were still clunky and office-based, and print-outs emerged as great sheafs of perforated sheets. Here we have two physicists desperately chalking out mathematical equations in the quest for the truth quark, now known as the “bottom" quark. The play is set in Germany between Wiesbaden and Berlin. The senior professor is a German Jew. The academic for whom he comes to work is a former Nazi. Around these principal protagonists are family and authority. The family descends into despair as the daughter’s beliefs swing towards anarchy and the physicists have trouble keeping their fidelities in line.
The play’s content sprawls through science, politics, religion, philosophy, culture and history, a great sweeping swathe of Sewell as we so well recall him from the 80s heyday. And, we may reflect, many things remain much the same in the ethical carnage we have come to know as politics.
It is a good thing that director Charles Sanders and his House of Sand company are magnets for bright young audiences since such samples of serious Australian theatre are wholesome grist for the cultural-future mill.
And being young probably helps audience members when it comes to sitting in the Old Queens. For all the loving attention to its restoration and use as a vibrant venue, it remains cold and physically hard going. House of Sand has supplied knee rugs which help, but beware of the nice little wedding chairs moving backwards and their rear legs slipping into the tier gaps. There were a few distracting moments for audience members discovering an awkward sinking feeling on opening night.
But, the play’s the thing and Sanders has embraced the great white cavern of Queens with a brilliant spectacle of production effects. Black and white projections bring heavy rain to great high windows accompanied by a clever omnipresence of rainy sound. It feels soothing, moody and strangely prescient. Indeed, Mario Spate’s overall soundscape for this production is nothing less than stellar. Owen McCarthy’s lighting plot, similarly, is vivid and thrilling, albeit occasionally erratic on opening night.
With the backing of State Theatre’s set and costume expertise, the production sings finesse born both of practicality and ingenious use of venue. Family living area, office and student apartments are represented on two dais stages which flank the centre opening of the Old Queen’s performance space, the back wall of which has been pleasantly transformed into a garden patio setting. The gaping high window is illuminated to frame actors for dramatic moments, particularly in the opening and closing scenes. Large clear perspex screens, cleverly edged by lights, are rolled onto the stage for the mathematical calculations of the two scientists. They work brilliantly, the actors’ faces clear and close as they dash out their symbols on the faux blackboard surface. Calculations are reiterated by projector on the back wall from time to time. The performance area is always busy with visual enhancements of the action. It even works as an art gallery as one of the characters’ has an exhibition. She is Anat Lewin, a photo artist, much conflicted and wife of the principal scientist Max, and she is portrayed with admirable emotional balance by Jo Stone. Her best friend is beautiful Fay of the stiletto heels and compassionate presence, aptly embodied by Anna Cheney. Their relationship is strained by the dubious mores of their spouses and the hormonal attachments of the Lewin daughter, Rebekah. In her first professional role, Georgia Stanley gives powerful presence to the character of Rebekah and also that of Max Lewin’s young mistress. Roman Vaculik depicts the younger scientist, Sebastian, with a certain degree of European panache, fleshing him out into states of desperate ambivalence when required. It is a strong characterisation and it is a strong cast. Patrick Frost delivers the ominous ex-Nazi bureaucrat, Dr Mencken, with a core of ice, contrasting this role dramatically in the cameo role of the dying dad with dementia. Last in the lineup, Max Garcia-Underwood is sleek and slick as the sinister factotum Herr Heintz.
Sewell writes epic plays with meaty roles for actors and in this case, the part of Max Lewin is nothing less than an entire herd of Charolais for Terrence Crawford. He soars from gentle soul to shattered madman. And, even if it’s not one’s favourite play, it brings towering performances in a very snazzy, professional production from the talented Charles Sanders and his House of Sand team.
We can only look forward to what they bring us next.
When: 21 Sep to 6 Oct
Where: Queens Theatre