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The Golden Age | Old NickLeft - Bryony Geeves. Cover - Bryony Geeves and Scott Farrow. Photos - courtesy The Old Nick

I should preface this review by saying that I have never seen this play before, so I can't compare Old Nick's production of The Golden Age with others. I had heard about it, though, and was curious to see how its potent premise was to be handled. What a cracker of a play it is! It's great to see an amateur company taking on challenging and thematically complex material.

It's also a strange and rare occurrence to see a Tasmanian production of a well known play that's actually set in Tasmania. (It's just a pity for the cast that this is of no help when it comes to the necessity for doing accents!)

In the days just before the outbreak of World War II two young chaps, Francis Morris (Cam McKenzie) and Peter Archer (Benny Winckle), are bushwalking when they stumble across some odd people. They turn out to be a tribe of forgotten settlers, who have, in their isolation, evolved a culture and language unique unto themselves. Francis, in particular, is intrigued. He's drawn to one of the women of the group, the wild, love-starved Betsheb (Bryony Geeves).

At the request of the tribe's leader, Queenie Ayre (Georgie Perry), Francis and Peter take the motley group back to civilisation, and it's then that their real troubles begin. Peter's father, Dr Archer (Peter Reardon), is even more fascinated by the tribe than Francis, and he and his wife take them into their home. Dr Archer studies them and learns from them, but ultimately fails to protect them. Betsheb and Francis's budding romance is jeopardised when he and Peter are called up to fight in Europe. We catch glimpses of the horror they are facing there, interspersed with scenes of the tribe's slow decline.

It's a simple story, a modern fable with a satisfying sense of inevitability about it. The plot, then, is not really the thing: this is a play about how the situation is handled by each of the characters. More than anything, The Golden Age is a study of rationalisations. It's about the things the characters tell themselves to get through life, to cope with what befalls them; whether that be what is done to them or the consequences of their own decisions. Ayre tells stories, grieves, remembers, while Dr Archer tells himself he's doing his best, knowing it's a lie. Betsheb hides inside her own imagination, while Francis hides from trauma by entering into her reality.

The play's book-ending references to Greek tragedy, with Mrs Archer (Clare Gray) having the eccentric habit of staging amateur productions of Iphigenia in Tauris for charity, highlights Nowra's view of his characters' situation. This may certainly be viewed as a comment on the plight of Aboriginal Australia (although I don't think, by any means, that that's the only intended meaning).

The tribe members are marvellous creations, a joy to any actor. As spoken by Ayre, Betsheb and the patriarch, Melorne (Reardon), their language is lyrical yet thrillingly direct. It's not easy to understand, and, indeed, at various points the play provides a direct translation into English, but you don't need to really understand it to enjoy it. It's this invented language that makes this play such an unusual pleasure.

There's a long scene when we first meet the tribe, a back and forward between them and the interlopers, depicting the struggle to communicate. Ayre explains their history, although Francis and Peter don't understand, and Melorne performs a play to entertain them. The centrepiece of the play in a way, this scene is highly dramatic and is beautifully staged by this production. It can't fail to bring to mind an historical tableau, perhaps a painting by John Glover, but the interactions are warm and human. The tribe members are immediately likeable, for all that they're obviously damaged, perhaps mad.

The actor playing Ayre, Georgie Perry, is actually many years younger than the character, and its to her credit that this in no way diminishes her portrayal. She brings a merry dignity to the role and a genuine charisma.

Betsheb is the most relatable of the tribe and becomes our guide to their culture, as she is for Francis and Dr Archer. She loves Francis almost by necessity, while her more romantic side is expressed in her use of language and her feeling for nature. Geeves is powerful in the role, creating a Betsheb who is part child, part woman and part ...something we can't quite fathom. Her energised physicality is an asset and she's interesting even when just observing, her eyes following the action with wary curiosity.

Scott Farrow is equally impressive as another young member of the tribe, Stef. He can't walk, so spends much of his time rolling on the floor, clumsily picking up objects, grunting or shaking his head to express himself. Stef says a lot, without actually saying anything, and Farrow is fully aware of this responsibility. Another mute character, the tragic Mac, is handled well by Rowan Harris; although it's something of a surprise when he pops up in another role similarly dressed (perhaps a fake moustache would come in handy for moments like these). Harris is fantastic in this second role as an asylum inmate, conveying banal menace.

A few other performances stand out: Clare Gray as the coolly compassionate Mrs Archer and Peter Reardon as the patriarch of the tribe, a playful and spritely old fellow. (Reardon is strong also in the key role of Dr Archer.) James Casey and Jessica Davies lend more than capable support in smaller roles, while McKenzie and Winckle are sympathetic as the two friends, ordinary young men who are forced to grow up too fast. There is an occasional awkwardness between them though, as though they are saying their lines to the house instead of to each other, but overall they are effective.

There is also a stiltedness when it comes to Nowra's more didactic speeches; for instance, the exchange between Dr Archer and the Minister of Health (Casey), in which the Minister declares that the tribe must be hidden because they 'prove' Nazi beliefs about eugenics, with Archer feebly arguing the point. I don't know that either actor is quite convinced of what he is saying. A different directorial approach, perhaps a slower pace, may have helped in this regard.

There is much to enjoy in The Golden Age; from the fine, spirited performances to the sombre atmosphere created by sound and set design. This is an intense, thoughtful interpretation of a layered and deeply theatrical play. This production should not be missed.

Old Nick presents
The Golden Age
by Louis Nowra

Directed by Matt Wilson

Venue: The Peacock Theatre
Dates: October 15 - 30, 2010
Bookings: Centertainment 03 6234 5998