Review: Once In Royal David’s City (Belvoir St Theatre)

rsz_auditorium-onceinroyaldavidscityThis review first published in Auditorium Magazine (Spring 2014)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 8 – March 23, 2014
Playwright: Michael Gow
Director: Eamon Flack
Actors: Helen Buday, Brendan Cowell, Maggie Dence, Harry Greenwood, Lech Mackiewicz, Tara Morice, Helen Morse, Anthony Phelan

Theatre review
Michael Gow’s latest work is about political theatre. In both content and form, it explores the meaning of the very concept by delving into the life and writings of Bertolt Brecht, and by telling the story of Will Drummond, a Sydney theatre practitioner dealing with the impending death of his mother. Drummond is invited by a high school to speak to its students on the very topic of political theatre, revealing to us Drummond’s strong feelings about the education system and his passion for his vocation.

Gow’s play consists of a string of monologues by Drummond, either addressing the audience directly, or his sick mother who sleeps through his speeches. Minor characters appear sporadically to assist with plot trajectories, but they exist mostly to illustrate Drummond’s points of discussion. This is essentially a one-man show, where Gow’s own ideas and ideals are thinly veiled as his protagonist’s. It is clear that he has things to say, and he resolves to say them in the most straightforward way possible.

Brendan Cowell is the leading man, and the success and effectiveness of the production rests firmly on the quality of his performance. Cowell possesses the lethal, and contradictory, combination of unassuming looks and enigmatic magnetism. He plays the down-to-earth regular guy with ease, but has a star quality that is persistently captivating.

Cowell plays up his character’s theatricality. We accept that Drummond is going through great turmoil with his mother’s illness, and coupled with an outspoken and flamboyant personality, opportunities open up for impassioned and extravagant rants about the state of the world as seen by both character and writer. Things could easily become grim and repetitive but Cowell’s conviction in every line is impressive, and believable. The actor has an obvious connection to the text, and it is his love for the material that makes us listen, and judging by some of the stirrings in the audience, possibly even persuasive.

A key subject of the play, is the notion of Brecht’s famed “alienation effect” from the original “verfremdungseffekt”, and the popular misunderstanding of that concept to imply an emotional disengagement. Drummond, in his school lecture, expounds that Brecht had actually believed that passion and emotion are in fact important, as it is only through a sense of anger that action will be taken. He further elaborates that apathy and despondency are precisely the sentiments that need to be avoided, and that theatre needs to move away from a state of powerless depression, toward one of questioning and empowerment.

Director Eamon Flack adopts the Brechtian and Marxist influences of Drummond’s life, and stages a production that is carefully and self-awaredly minimal in distraction, and strident with its ideology. Visual design elements are pared down. Lighting is fairly sophisticated, but costumes, sets and props are basic, and only engaged when necessary. Actors are required to be still, only moving when relevant. The “fourth wall” is removed for many of Drummond’s monologues, and songs are sung during scene changes as direct reference to some of Brecht’s documented techniques.

Once In Royal David’s City is an interesting exercise in the relationship between emotion, theatre practice, and political action. We see a theatre director gradually becoming more socially active through his work, as his personal circumstances turn increasingly emotional. This is not entirely convincing as a storyline, but what is most striking about the production is the assertive volume at which Michael Gow’s own ideologies are pitched. His perspectives have clearly influenced Flack, Cowell and others in the cast, but the extent to which their performance will affect Belvoir’s audience can probably never be certain.