Once in Royal David’s City – Belvoir
Michael Gow's new play of ideas cuts through the cultural cringe.
Why is a hard-up theatre director standing in Ballina airport thinking about Bertolt Brecht? The reasons form the basis of Michael Gow’s new play of ideas, Once in Royal David’s City, currently playing on Belvoir’s main stage. Will’s mother is dying, he doesn’t have much money and a friend has just asked him to teach a class on Brecht at a private high school even though ‘the class war is over’. It's a provocation that only fortifies his socialist beliefs.
Director Eamon Flack (Angels in America) has taken his cue from Brecht with a pared-back production, and Nick Schlieper’s simple design of a circular hospital curtain is functional and elegant. Brendan Cowell playing Will leads a team of capable actors who provide both the chorus and joyous Christmas choir. Lech Mackiewicz as the doctor is the strongest of the bunch, socking it to Will with the news that his mother is dying, offering the meagre consolation, “sorry news is grim.” But he’s not sorry and it’s great.
Will may be questioning capitalism and his place in the system, but Cowell doesn't have to end each of his sentences as a question. His response to the news of his mother’s illness is a plaintiff ‘No?’ and this vocal pattern persists until his riveting final address to the school students. Here, he powers forward with Gow’s answer to Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night. This fantastic ending will have you eschewing your consumer lifestyle for at least a day or two after the production.
My problem with the play is the whiff of condescension towards the ‘common’ middle classes. The high school drama teacher (Tara Morice) giggles to Will that the final scene of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is quite moving, even though Brecht "doesn’t want us to feel". That Brecht’s theatre of alienation espouses critical engagement rather than detachment is no revelation and yet Gow presents it as an intellectual triumph at the expense of the drama teacher (a profession Will thinks is beneath him). This characterisation of teachers as dowdy child minders would no doubt get the ire up of drama teacher and theatre critic Jane Simmonds over at SOYP. Sure, the life of an artist is gloriously sacrificial in comparison to that of the bourgeoisie, but the aggrandisement of the solo male intellect here is a bit on the nose.
That said, it’s heartening to see a play about ideas cut through our cultural cringe and present stimulating ideas in a charmingly daggy, Australian way.
Image by Ellis Parrinder.