Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Theatre: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

By Ray Lawler
Directed by Marcelle Schmitz
Set designer Lauren Ross
Performed by WAAPA 3rd Year acting students Abbie-Lee Lewis, Emily Kennedy, Renae Small, Travis Jeffery, Andrew Hearle, Arabella Mason and Mathew Cooper
Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA
15 – 23 June, 2012

Renae Small and Andrew Hearle
Ray Lawler’s 1955 play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, occupies a formidable place in the history of the Australian stage, rather like Patrick White’s novels of the same vintage do in its literature. It bears the weight of comparison to the gigantic American and British naturalist dramas of the mid-20th century: Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premiered the same year; John Osborne’s Look back in Anger the year after.
It also suffered a bowdlerised, Americanised film version in 1959, happy ending and all, that did its reputation no good at all.
For all these reasons, “The Doll” has long been a play admired from a distance. In the WA of 2012, though, it offers something much more immediate.

The cane-cutters – with their seven months of backbreaking labour in North Queensland and five months of cashed-up, indulgent “lay-off” with their women in Melbourne – are firmly placed in a pattern of life and work that many Australians have identified with, all the way from the bush ballads with their drovers in town on a spree to the present day fly-in, fly-out lifestyle.
It’s fertile ground for exploring other continuing manifestations of the Australian mythology; the jealous nobility of physical work, especially outdoor work – the baking cane fields v the suburban factory, the bush v the big sticks, the frontier Queensland and WA v the metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne.
The play also attends to the conspiracy of men to hide failure, the inevitable giving way of the old in the face of the new, and the corrosive effect of the men’s world on relationships and real fulfilment.
The story of Roo (Andrew Hearle), his mate Barney (Travis Jeffrey), and Roo’s nemesis, Johnnie Dowd (Mathew Cooper), has often been seen as the core of the play, but Lawler himself says The Doll is simply about “alternatives to marriage”, and for director Marcelle Schmitz, it’s the character of Olive (Renae Small) that lies at its heart.    
This fertile, compassionate production by WAAPA’s graduating acting students is distinguished by much more than its provenance.
Schmitz has done a remarkable job with her young cast; Hearle’s extraordinary height and physique magnify both Olive’s attraction to him and the disaster of his fall, and Jeffrey and Cooper do well to give their characters strong contrasting personalities in his shadow. Olive’s mother, Emma (Arabella Mason), and her workmate, Pearl (Emily Kennedy), are both finely, sternly drawn. Only Abbie-Lee Lewis’s Bubba, the young woman from next door drawn to the lives she sees her neighbours living, suffers a little, ironically because Lewis is the only cast member playing a character anything like her age.
The great triumph of this production is Small’s performance. She delivers magnificently on Schmitz’s interpretation, giving Olive an easy sexual warmth and a sunny generosity of spirit, obscuring – but not diminishing – her determination to live her life the way it is. She is magnetic, mercurial and evocative – for some reason Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman kept coming to mind as I watched her performance.
When, near the end of the play, she breaks “just like a little girl”, nothing else that follows, even Roo’s explosion of loss and rage or the men’s expulsion from the house, really matters. Olive picks up her broken heart and shattered, ordinary dreams and goes back to her work at the pub. And we go with her.  

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