Women have been historically under-produced on Australian stages, and Patricia Cornelius is no exception. She is one of Australia’s greatest playwrights but until now her work has never been performed by Sydney Theatre Company.
Cornelius amplifies the voices of those who are often invisible in contemporary theatrical spaces: the working class and disenfranchised, including those who have been incarcerated or abused. She writes women without politeness and men without undue reverence and isn’t afraid to be profane or to push boundaries. It’s easy to see why a major company might consider her work a risky proposition.
Since 1982, she has been awarded the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize, the Mona Brand Award, and the 2019 Green Room Award for Lifetime Achievement. She has won a Victorian and a NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the Wal Cherry Award, the Australian Writers Foundation Playwriting Award and is a three-time winner of the AWGIE Major Award. She won both the Patrick White Playwrights Award (in 2006) and the Patrick White Fellowship (in 2011), two incentives offered by Sydney Theatre Company itself. But it was still another 12 years before she was programmed into an STC season.
Cornelius’s work offers much more than risk. While she never ignores darkness and despair, she also lets in the light. Her work is filled with wit and wryness and – often – very satisfying jokes. She assigns dignity, vital inner life and agency to her characters, and by extension the people they represent. If playwrights show us what it means to be human, and if their work represents who we are as a society and what we value, then Cornelius is one of our most important sociopolitical barometers.
It’s all on display in Do Not Go Gentle, finally in its well-earned place by Sydney Harbour, 17 years after winning the Patrick White Award.
When the play begins, we’re served a vision of Antarctica. The Roslyn Packer Theatre stage, in a design by Charles Davis, is stark. A glacier stands tall and uncompromising. The terrain is mountainous and white and often it is snowing. Later, it even begins to feel cold – likely a necessary consequence of keeping the actors cool in their sub-zero-appropriate costumes, all layers and fur.
Scott (Philip Quast) is, it seems, Robert Falcon Scott, leader of the ill-fated British Antarctic Terra Nova expedition. He’s racing to be first to reach the geographic South Pole, forging ahead with his final comrades: Wilson (Vanessa Downing), Bowers (Brigid Zengeni), Evans (Peter Carroll) and Oates (John Gaden). Much of his dialogue springs from Scott’s diaries as he creates a narrative of triumph, even as weather conditions are bad and the outcome uncertain.
Pulling sledges through ice storms and marching towards the unknown, the team has a series of conversations about what might be waiting for them on the other side of the journey and whether they have any regrets. Simultaneously they are also in another time and place, where these discussions take on different meaning. All of these characters are also in an aged-care home, experiencing varying degrees of memory loss and dementia, feeling and sometimes fearing the end as it draws near. Their trek is towards Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”. Reality is shifting and no one knows the way forward.
The play cracks linear storytelling apart to touch something true about the experience of ageing and dementia. Its title references the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”, which urges us to “burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage, against the dying of the light”.
Cornelius understands poetic rhythms: her work is often described as “grunge poetry”. She employs the forthright, colloquial dialogue of the everyday and applies the literary devices of emotion, persuasion and emphasis to uplift it into poetry, favouring repetition and anaphora, parallelism and rhetorical flourishes. When her characters speak, she makes sure we hear them.
Evans brings the most rage to the play, and is the first on stage to summon Thomas’s refrain as he argues for workers and the poor. His voice might be the most recognisably Cornelius’s, as she was a founding member of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, a company that smashed theatre’s elitism to make work with and for the working class. As he moves closer to the end – Evans was the first of Scott’s team to perish – Carroll’s performance is touching. Loss begins to thicken the air.
This production’s strength is its mood. Director Paige Rattray has a gift for atmosphere that doesn’t feel imposed on characters: rather, it’s as if she coaxes from the actors a collective feeling that permeates the atmosphere and sets a clear, accessible tone. In her hands, Do Not Go Gentle has a suppleness and malleability that makes it move easily between the play’s two worlds. When the script leans into rumination, she smooths it into meditation, keeping us present.
As we move through the play, we learn more about the realities of each character on both sides of the story. Zengeni’s Bowers is considered too young for either journey, and when we meet a loved one she doesn’t remember (Josh McConville), it breaks your heart.
And then there’s Oates. In one of John Gaden’s finest performances, he confronts two impossible realities: the complexity of his grief and shame following the death of his son (McConville again), and his worsening condition on the South Pole trek, where he hears strange noises and his body is freezing. In one of Scott’s most famous diary entries, he wrote that Oates said, right before he walked into a blizzard to die: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Gaden releases the line from his throat like a discovery: making it gravely new.
Opera singer Marilyn Richardson – now approaching her 87th birthday – sings us into the play in a black gown, elegiac and vulnerable. She plays Maria, a Serbian migrant who is grieving for her old life and home. She exists outside the expedition, haunting it, but as she shares her story, speaking lovingly of her late husband, she introduces to the world onstage a surge of desire, prompting Wilson (Downing, endlessly charming) to explore desires of her own.
Scott described Wilson as a soulmate: when their frozen bodies were uncovered, Scott’s arm was out of his sleeping bag, reaching for him. It feels right that Wilson turns to Quast’s Scott for reality-bending romantic and sexual comfort. Their story has its own twists, turns and revelations, but it is vitally life-affirming.
For a play about death, it may sound trite to point out that it is also brimming with life, but it isn’t a given that one should follow the other. Elderly people are frequently viewed in paternalistic, patronising ways, and living in a care home can make the end of life a lonely and dehumanising experience.
The devastation of Covid-19 infections ripping through aged-care facilities acutely highlights this. When we couldn’t visit our loved ones or support them in person during the pandemic, it felt like disruption upon disruption. Death moved cruelly through our older citizens, and the voices of those who lived in those care homes were often missing from the conversation. Do Not Go Gentle captures those disruptions but uplifts the voices. As three of the cast members are over the age of 80, it feels like a much-needed correction. Ageing isn’t the end.
Do Not Go Gentle reminds us that the rage is for all of us, that life is for all of us, and that everyone’s story is critical to our understanding of the world around us. Cornelius sees this clearly: we’re lucky that finally, on one of Sydney’s most prestigious stages, she can help the rest of us to see it, too.
Do Not Go Gentle is playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until June 17.
FESTIVAL Dark Mofo
Venues throughout Tasmania, June 8-22
VISUAL ART Antonia Sellbach: Dots and Arcs (The Monochromes)
Nicholas Thomson Gallery, Melbourne, until June 10
CABARET Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Venues throughout Adelaide, June 9-24
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Arts House, Melbourne, June 7-18
CERAMICS Clay: Collected Ceramics
Museum of Brisbane, until October 22
CULTURE Just Not Australian
Museum of Sydney, until June 4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Raging into the light".
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