Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius’s award-winning ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ depicts five elderly people nearing the end of the Journey that is their lives. The characters embody different aspects of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle, from which the play’s title derives: wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men. Moreover, the characters’ journey, which takes place in a nursing home, interweaves original dialogue with Robert Scott’s diary accounts of his ill-fated Antarctic expedition. Each role is rich in characterisation, and Cornelius gives us an insight into pasts that they can only vaguely recall, such as problematic marriages, loving husbands no longer recognised by their wives, and the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder induced by the Vietnam War, whilst simultaneously exploring the effects of dementia and the politics of care. The script is heart-warming, shocking, thought-provoking, and hilarious, seemingly discordant ingredients that result in a very fine play, if cast and directed right.
Fortunately, this production was indeed very well cast and directed. Ray Thomas and his actors and crew have embarked on one of the most ambitious undertakings in Everyman Theatre Company’s rich history, involving members from Wales and Australia. The joint cast – Cate Feldmann, Susan Gallagher, Owen Trevor-Jones, Max Donati, and Greg Aitken from The Drill Hall in Mullumbimby, and Geraint Dixon, Rosy Greenwood, Peter Harding-Roberts, and Arnold Phillips, from Everyman, Cardiff – worked perfectly, with not a weak link to be found. The on-stage relationships between them were eminently believable, and the actors tickled funny bones and pulled at heartstrings in almost equal measure.
Geraint Dixon played Scott, who narrated the expedition throughout with dulcet Welsh tones, while offering audience members the odd glimpse of a man behind the historical figure, nearing his end and lamenting his failures. Peter Harding-Roberts was hilarious as the bombastic Evans, very much representing a wild man who, for much of the play, raged against the dying light, which made his ending all the more poignant. Rosy Greenwood played the occasionally scandalous role of Wilson; she was engaging and warm throughout, and stole hearts with ease. Cate Feldman’s performance as Bowers was particularly touching, for she refused to acknowledge that she had lost her way and could no longer recognise her husband, played by Arnold Phillips, who also gave a beautifully understated performance. No less poignant were the interpretations of Owen Trevor-Jones as Oates and Max Donati as his son, Peter, victims of war and suicide. The confrontation between these two was especially effective.
Moreover, director Thomas and professional designer Ruth Stringer made great use of the depth and breadth of the Chapter Arts Centre stage, with white drapes, resembling all at once bedclothes, icy crevices, and the Terra Nova sails, helping to convey at various points a hostile landscape and a laundry room. Additionally, the judicious use of lighting, primarily white, with hints of blue, reflected both the metaphorical Antarctic expedition and the nursing home interior. The stage also resembled a raised ice-field platform, with suggestions of white tiled flooring and other features added to it, such as ski tracks. The actors remained in character throughout proceedings, often sitting stage right, drinking cups of tea, or preparing for the next leg of their journey.
The play’s conclusion felt tragic in many respects, as Wilson’s husband (played by Greg Aitken) turned up and we realised that the relationship between her and Scott was not as it seemed. With only Scott left on stage, he was given a choice of walking into a palely shining light and exiting stage left, or raging against that dying light. Needless to say, he exited stage right, and thus concluded a wonderful piece of ambitious theatre. The production’s Cardiff journey is now over, but it will resume at the Memo Arts Centre, Barry, on 16th September, and The Savoy, Tonyrefail, 29th September.
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