Astro­man and Krapp's Last Tape.

MTC’s child­ish ’80s romp Astro­man – un­suc­cess­fully trans­planted from New Zealand to Gee­long – is un­likely to ap­peal even to schoolkids, but more adult au­di­ences will revel in Max Gil­lies’ mas­ter­ful turn in Beck­ett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, writes Peter Craven.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Peter Craven

It was a bizarre cou­pling and a demon­stra­tion – if one was needed – of the be­wil­der­ing zigzags in se­ri­ous­ness that the Aus­tralian the­atre can dis­play. There, on Thurs­day night, was Max Gil­lies, comic ac­tor ex­traor­di­naire, do­ing Beck­ett’s one-han­der Krapp’s

Last Tape at forty­five­down­stairs, re­vis­it­ing the play of ret­ro­spec­tion and lis­ten­ing that he had done 50 years ear­lier for that mae­stro of di­rec­tion Eli­jah Moshin­sky. And then, the next night, Fri­day, there was the open­ing of Astro­man by the Mel­bourne The­atre Com­pany, a sort of bland romp about ’80s teenagers in Gee­long, which seemed so tame and trite that its af­fa­ble in­nocu­ous­ness looked like a sop to the schoolies. Al­though it made you won­der how on earth schoolkids could, were the show to tour, pos­si­bly find it com­pelling in a world of The Avengers and what­ever fran­chise bub­blegum hap­pens to be their poi­son.

Krapp’s Last Tape is vin­tage Beck­ett, writ­ten in 1958, a few years after the pre­miere of Wait­ing for Godot and ex­hibit­ing with a terse grandeur the power with which Beck­ett could present the all but blank sheets of mem­ory like so many shades of de­sire un­acted or sat­is­fac­tions for­gone. A man lis­tens to the recorded re­mem­brances of his past life, grow­ing grad­u­ally sad­der or more dis­tracted, adding to the ef­fect of no­tated fu­til­ity with his spo­ken foot­notes and fre­netic at­tempts to set the record, for­ever crooked, that lit­tle bit straighter, wob­ble though it might.

Gil­lies is bet­ter in the role, richer and more rounded, than he was back in 1968. He sits in a dark­ened pool of en­croach­ing night, his face il­lu­mi­nated in Lau­rence Stran­gio’s pro­duc­tion, his still­ness – ex­cept for the flurry with the ar­chaic tape recorders – in marked con­trast to the fre­netic move­ment un­der stark glow­ing lights that Moshin­sky ex­acted from him as if to pro­vide a ca­per­ing ex­is­ten­tial coun­ter­point to the med­i­ta­tive melan­choly.

There may have been the odd fum­ble, but this was not in­ap­pro­pri­ate in what came across as a pro­duc­tion pre­oc­cu­pied with sec­u­lar last rites. Gil­lies enun­ci­ates Beck­ett’s sculpted mun­dan­i­ties in a high-toned plummy ver­sion of his old-fash­ioned Aus­tralian ac­cent, and there is plenty of cap­ti­va­tion and an ef­fort­less au­thor­ity – as well as a rem­nant of for­mer glo­ries – in the way the per­for­mance re­mem­bers the very starry char­ac­ter act­ing of The Gil­lies Re­port and the one-man shows where the mimicry be­came a ho­mage to and a trans­fig­u­ra­tion of na­tional ab­sur­dity.

There are also echoes of that ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance Gil­lies gave in the early ’80s, in the first of his stabs at Jack Hib­berd’s Monk O’Neil in A Stretch of the Imag­i­na­tion, a per­for­mance of such ripeness and clair­voy­ance, such rol­lick­ing self-mock­ery and such plan­gency in the vicin­ity of the drums of death, that you knew you were in the pres­ence of one of the great­est ac­tors this coun­try had pro­duced.

Last Tape will have ripened since I saw it and there is no doubt more pin­point­ing of the drama and the way it crosses and fol­lows the shapely sym­me­tries of what might al­most be Racinian so­lil­o­quy, but this is a tes­ta­ment to a great dra­matic tal­ent that we were once en­grossed by and then, in var­i­ous ways, ne­glected. Every­one should get a glimpse of it.

It’s dif­fi­cult to know what crowd Astro­man is seek­ing to please, given how ap­prox­i­mate this pro­duc­tion of a bla­tantly pop­ulist bit of heartwarming corn is. Astro­man is the work of Al­bert Belz, writer-in­res­i­dence at New Zealand’s Can­ter­bury Univer­sity. To say it’s a feel-good play is enough to give seren­ity and any form of self-sat­is­fac­tion a very bad name.

Sarah Goodes, who did that next in­stal­ment of A Doll’s House at MTC a cou­ple of months ago, has been handed this by way of dra­matic sce­nario. Indige­nous Mum (Elaine Crom­bie) and her twin sons – one a com­puter and gen­eral math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius (Kamil El­lis), the other a slower-mov­ing chap (Calen Tas­sone) – are be­sot­ted with the Gee­long Foot­ball Club, some­what mys­te­ri­ously given that they have just come down from rugby league-ob­sessed Townsville, at the mo­ment of Gary Ablett snr’s re­cruit­ment.

The young ge­nius steals a bike, which in turn is stolen from him by the town thug (im­prob­a­bly played by that star-to-be Ni­cholas Den­ton). Every­one hangs out in the video ar­cade. There are ter­ri­ble storms and shat­tered tea cups. Thug de­stroys video ma­chines, Young Ge­nius fixes them up. Then his school teacher (Tahlee Fere­day) sug­gests he get a schol­ar­ship from a top Mel­bourne board­ing school. Mean­while, the tough gets the hots for the boys’ sis­ter (also Tahlee Fere­day) who runs around on skates.

There’s lots of break­danc­ing, lots of mim­ing of ’80s songs and a lus­trous mo­ment when the Thug gets to do a Michael Jack­son im­per­son­ation with the girl on skates who matches him move for move.

It’s a mystery why hu­man mem­ory seems to have stopped with the 1980s but no doubt it makes more sense if you’re in your early 40s and just hit­ting your pro­fes­sional straps. And, okay, there’s Wi­nona Ry­der in Stranger Things, and Riverdale with that Archie char­ac­ter, but Astro­man is all a bit much.

It also makes you sus­pi­cious of how much re­search Belz did into Gee­long, which hap­pens to have its fair share of pri­vate schools, in­clud­ing the posh­est board­ing school in the south­ern hemi­sphere. A fact that rather makes non­sense of the poignant ne­ces­sity for our math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius to study – com­puter science, for God’s sake – in the big smoke of Mel­bourne, 1984.

Goodes does what she can with this drivel of a play but it’s dif­fi­cult to know what Chris Mead, MTC’s lit­er­ary di­rec­tor and script se­lec­tor, was think­ing. There’s stacks of colour and move­ment in the con­ge­nial semi­cir­cu­lar

space of the Fair­fax the­atre and the space is never quite as empty as the script. Kamil El­lis gives a kind of ob­vi­ous but ad­e­quate per­for­mance as Boy Won­der. Nic Den­ton, the most tal­ented young ac­tor around, de­serves bet­ter ma­te­rial than this. In his stone-washed jeans and head­banded mul­let and em­ploy­ing a high-pitched voice, he is quite sim­ply the campest-look­ing would-be tough guy to grace a stage. On the other hand, he does have a scene where he col­lapses to the ground weep­ing which is gen­uinely grand and – against the odds – mov­ing. But, for heaven’s sake, let the boy play Ham­let or Chance in Sweet Bird of Youth, per­haps to Si­grid Thorn­ton’s Alexan­dra

Del Lago.

Oth­er­wise, the rest of the cast is pretty or­di­nary – some­times in the stan­dard, some­times in the foot­ball sense of the word. Goodes tries to make you feel a spoil­sport for al­low­ing ra­tio­nal thought to in­spire dis­dain for all this, but what chance has she got?

It should be em­pha­sised, though, that Tony Niko­lakopou­los is a great ex­cep­tion in this pro­duc­tion. In the role of the owner of the video game ar­cade, he acts like a god. This is a per­for­mance of riv­et­ing au­thor­ity, ab­so­lutely con­vinc­ing through ev­ery de­tail of nat­u­ral­ism but with an en­com­pass­ing warmth and hu­man re­al­ity that trans­fig­ures the ma­te­rial. Niko­lakopou­los is an ac­tor of the first rank and any the­atre com­pany should let him write his own tick­ets.

It’s hard to know what con­clu­sion to draw from such an ami­able but fee­ble of­fer­ing as Astro­man. If the MTC wanted to show­case diver­sity, it should have re­alised you need more than a thin pop­ulist script by a


New Zealand play­wright where Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal­ity is sim­ply slot­ted in for Māori ex­pe­ri­ence, and Gee­long, a 90-minute drive from Mel­bourne’s CBD, is used as a sub­sti­tute for the North Is­land with­out any at­tempt at in­ward­ness. It may be fair enough that Gee­long some­how re­minded Al­bert Belz of his home­town of Whakatane, but we should be care­ful of this one-coun­try-townequals-an­other busi­ness, let alone the sub­sti­tu­tion of very dif­fer­ent orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants. The real point though is that Astro­man makes a week of Neigh­bours look like Strind­berg di­rected by Ing­mar Bergman.

The way Niko­lakopou­los stares down the medi­ocrity of the script, though, re­minds one of the ob­jec­tive rich­ness of our im­mi­grant act­ing com­mu­nity. Re­mem­ber the Greek lan­guage scenes in The Slap. Tal­ent should not be mocked, it should not be ne­glected. But the MTC should re­mem­ber that if you walk a mile out of

• false po­lit­i­cal piety, you walk to the death of drama.

PETER CRAVEN is a lit­er­ary and cul­ture critic.

Calen Tas­sone and Kamil El­lis in Astro­man (above), and (fac­ing page, from left) Tony Niko­lakopou­los, Elaine Crom­bie and El­lis.

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