The Aunt's Story by Patrick White, adapted for the stage and directed by Adam Cook. Melbourne Theatre Company presented by Company B at Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, until September 8, 2002. Note: 6.30pm (ends 9.45pm).
There's a joke in Act 2, among the mad denizens of a cheap 1930s hotel somewhere in Europe, about how boring life is: "It's probable that God created Adam on a rainy day." I can only say that if this nail-paring God created Adam Cook, and Helen Morse, and the Melbourne Theatre Company and Belvoir B, then do it again, Sam. Morse, as the shamelessly symbolically named Theodora Goodman, is on stage throughout: a tour de force and a wonder to behold. Absolutely the opposite of boring.
The rest of the cast - Andrew Blackman, Julia Blake, Ralph Cotterill, Sarah Kants, Roger Oakley and Genevieve Picot - speak for themselves if you are looking for a quality production. This is MTC at its most marvellous, each of these actors playing Patrick White's amazing array of characters in Theodora's life, the real people and her fantasies. Costumes change, accents change, make-up changes, mannerisms change so smoothly that though you can see it all happening you are never made conscious of the acting. The illusion is complete in the theatre, just as it should be for Patrick White's examination of the question, How can we be sure when illusion is reality, or reality is illusion?
Although you do not need to read White's original novel - Cook's script stands alone on stage - the program is worth a few dollars for its excellent discussion of White's story and its themes. Act 1 covers the death of Theodora's father who appreciates her as a real thinking person, in contrast to her air-headed sister Fanny, whose only interest is to marry a wealthy man and have babies. This Act is a memory play, a flashback triggered by the death of her mother, who describes Theodora as a thin stick, and yellow, (while Fanny is exactly the daughter she wanted).
After these two deaths and a decent interval, we observe Theodora escape from the dry sheep farm of her first 45 years (Fanny had her children, Theodora looked after her mother). Act 2 is in the Jardin Exotique, where the mad tumbledown pretend nobility draw her into an unreal world. White's ideas for the novel were developing as World War 2 drew on apace, and he wrote the novel immediately he escaped from the Royal Air Force at the war's end. Maybe people thought America would be the saviour from chaos, so Theodora travels on a train there, pulls the emergency cord in the middle of nowhere and finds a shack with a ghost who is clearly her father. Finding a kind of peace here, the so-sensible Americans see her fantasy as insanity and she is committed for treatment. Is this the 'rational' world we really want? Is ordinary reality enough?
Watch out for the thunder, lightning and gunshots. I shuddered in my safe seat as these effects seemed so real that I might myself be struck down like the huge tree in Theodora's garden, or shot through the heart like the little hawk. Signs in the foyer forewarn you: be warned. Dale Ferguson (design), Gavan Swift (lighting) and Ian McDonald (sound) have created just the strength of emotional response that White's imagination demands.
Add to all that a sound score created by Peter Sculthorpe which crept into my consciousness as if it naturally belonged there, and you may imagine why this production is among the best I have ever seen. Patrick White is a towering figure in Australian culture. Adam Cook has done him proud. Maybe God did have something to do with it - but maybe God is just another illusion, and we can do it all by ourselves, like Theodora Goodman.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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