MTC’s childish ’80s romp Astroman – unsuccessfully transplanted from New Zealand to Geelong – is unlikely to appeal even to schoolkids, but more adult audiences will revel in Max Gillies’ masterful turn in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. By Peter Craven.

Astroman and Krapp’s Last Tape

Calen Tassone and Kamil Ellis in ‘Astroman’.
Calen Tassone and Kamil Ellis in ‘Astroman’.
Credit: Jeff Busby

It was a bizarre coupling and a demonstration – if one was needed – of the bewildering zigzags in seriousness that the Australian theatre can display. There, on Thursday night, was Max Gillies, comic actor extraordinaire, doing Beckett’s one-hander Krapp’s Last Tape at fortyfivedownstairs, revisiting the play of retrospection and listening that he had done 50 years earlier for that maestro of direction Elijah Moshinsky. And then, the next night, Friday, there was the opening of Astroman by the Melbourne Theatre Company, a sort of bland romp about ’80s teenagers in Geelong, which seemed so tame and trite that its affable innocuousness looked like a sop to the schoolies. Although it made you wonder how on earth schoolkids could, were the show to tour, possibly find it compelling in a world of The Avengers and whatever franchise bubblegum happens
to be their poison.

Krapp’s Last Tape is vintage Beckett, written in 1958, a few years after the premiere of Waiting for Godot and exhibiting with a terse grandeur the power with which Beckett could present the all but blank sheets of memory like so many shades of desire unacted or satisfactions forgone. A man listens to the recorded remembrances of his past life, growing gradually sadder or more distracted, adding to the effect of notated futility with his spoken footnotes and frenetic attempts to set the record, forever crooked, that little bit straighter, wobble though it might.

Gillies is better in the role, richer and more rounded, than he was back in 1968. He sits in a darkened pool of encroaching night, his face illuminated in Laurence Strangio’s production, his stillness – except for the flurry with the archaic tape recorders – in marked contrast to the frenetic movement under stark glowing lights that Moshinsky exacted from him as if to provide a capering existential counterpoint to the meditative melancholy.

There may have been the odd fumble, but this was not inappropriate in what came across as a production preoccupied with secular last rites. Gillies enunciates Beckett’s sculpted mundanities in a high-toned plummy version of his old-fashioned Australian accent, and there is plenty of captivation and an effortless authority – as well as a remnant of former glories – in the way the performance remembers the very starry character acting of The Gillies Report and the one-man shows where the mimicry became a homage to and a transfiguration of national absurdity.

There are also echoes of that extraordinary performance Gillies gave in the early ’80s, in the first of his stabs at Jack Hibberd’s Monk O’Neil in A Stretch of the Imagination, a performance of such ripeness and clairvoyance, such rollicking self-mockery and such plangency in the vicinity of the drums of death, that you knew you were in the presence of one of the greatest actors this country had produced.

Last Tape will have ripened since I saw it and there is no doubt more pinpointing of the drama and the way it crosses and follows the shapely symmetries of what might almost be Racinian soliloquy, but this is a testament to a great dramatic talent that we were once engrossed by and then, in various ways, neglected. Everyone should get a glimpse of it.

It’s difficult to know what crowd Astroman is seeking to please, given how approximate this production of a blatantly populist bit of heartwarming corn is. Astroman is the work of Albert Belz, writer-in-residence at New Zealand’s Canterbury University. To say it’s a feel-good play is enough to give serenity and any form of self-satisfaction a very bad name.

Sarah Goodes, who did that next instalment of A Doll’s House at MTC a couple of months ago, has been handed this by way of dramatic scenario. Indigenous Mum (Elaine Crombie) and her twin sons – one a computer and general mathematical genius (Kamil Ellis), the other a slower-moving chap (Calen Tassone) – are besotted with the Geelong Football Club, somewhat mysteriously given that they have just come down from rugby league-obsessed Townsville, at the moment of Gary Ablett snr’s recruitment.

The young genius steals a bike, which in turn is stolen from him by the town thug (improbably played by that star-to-be Nicholas Denton). Everyone hangs out in the video arcade. There are terrible storms and shattered tea cups. Thug destroys video machines, Young Genius fixes them up. Then his school teacher (Tahlee Fereday) suggests he get a scholarship from a top Melbourne boarding school. Meanwhile, the tough gets the hots for the boys’ sister (also Tahlee Fereday) who runs around on skates.

There’s lots of breakdancing, lots of miming of ’80s songs and a lustrous moment when the Thug  gets to do a Michael Jackson impersonation with the girl on skates who matches him move for move.

It’s a mystery why human memory seems to have stopped with the 1980s but no doubt it makes more sense if you’re in your early 40s and just hitting your professional straps. And, okay, there’s Winona Ryder in Stranger Things, and Riverdale with that Archie character, but Astroman is all a bit much.

It also makes you suspicious of how much research Belz did into Geelong, which happens to have its fair share of private schools, including the poshest boarding school in the southern hemisphere. A fact that rather makes nonsense of the poignant necessity for our mathematical genius to study – computer science, for God’s sake – in the big smoke of Melbourne, 1984.

Goodes does what she can with this drivel of a play but it’s difficult to know what Chris Mead, MTC’s literary director and script selector, was thinking. There’s stacks of colour and movement in the congenial semicircular space of the Fairfax theatre and the space is never quite as empty as the script. Kamil Ellis gives a kind of obvious but adequate performance as Boy Wonder. Nic Denton, the most talented young actor around, deserves better material than this. In his stone-washed jeans and headbanded mullet and employing a high-pitched voice, he is quite simply the campest-looking would-be tough guy to grace a stage. On the other hand, he does have a scene where he collapses to the ground weeping which is genuinely grand and – against the odds – moving. But, for heaven’s sake, let the boy play Hamlet or Chance in Sweet Bird of Youth, perhaps to Sigrid Thornton’s Alexandra Del Lago.

Otherwise, the rest of the cast is pretty ordinary – sometimes in the standard, sometimes in the football sense of the word. Goodes tries to make you feel a spoilsport for allowing rational thought to inspire disdain for all this, but what chance has she got?

It should be emphasised, though, that Tony Nikolakopoulos is a great exception in this production. In the role of the owner of the video game arcade, he acts like a god. This is a performance of riveting authority, absolutely convincing through every detail of naturalism but with an encompassing warmth and human reality that transfigures the material. Nikolakopoulos is an actor of the first rank and any theatre company should let him write his own tickets.

It’s hard to know what conclusion to draw from such an amiable but feeble offering as Astroman. If the MTC wanted to showcase diversity, it should have realised you need more than a thin populist script by a New Zealand playwright where Australian Aboriginality is simply slotted in for Māori experience, and Geelong, a 90-minute drive from Melbourne’s CBD, is used as a substitute for the North Island without any attempt at inwardness. It may be fair enough that Geelong somehow reminded Albert Belz of his hometown of Whakatane, but we should be careful of this one-country-town-equals-another business, let alone the substitution of very different original inhabitants. The real point though is that Astroman makes a week of Neighbours look like Strindberg directed by Ingmar Bergman.

The way Nikolakopoulos stares down the mediocrity of the script, though, reminds one of the objective richness of our immigrant acting community. Remember the Greek language scenes in The Slap. Talent should not be mocked, it should not be neglected. But the MTC should remember that if you walk a mile out of false political piety, you walk to the death of drama.


Arts Diary

MUSIC Melbourne Music Week

Venues throughout Melbourne, November 16-24

THEATRE Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue

The Joan, Sydney, November 15-24

VISUAL ART Carte-o-mania

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, until April 22

VISUAL ART John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until January 28

VISUAL ART The Mission: Michael Cook

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until March 3

THEATRE Lamb (A New Play with Songs)

Red Stitch, Melbourne, November 13–December 13

DANCE Spartacus

Sydney Opera House, until November 24

CIRCUS Circus Oz: Rock Bang

Merlyn Theatre, Melbourne, November 15-25

THEATRE The Dance of Death

Belvoir, Sydney, until December 23

PHOTOGRAPHY Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties

The Workshops Rail Museum, Brisbane, until February 24

VISUAL ART Noŋgirrŋa Marawili: from my heart and mind

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until until February 24

Last chance

MULTIMEDIA Oceania Rising: Wayfinders

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, until November 11

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 9, 2018 as "Astro enteritis".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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