Five arctic explorers rage against the dying of their light, linked by reins on their body harnesses and by faltering memories. They trudge through squall and snow – a “glistening world without edges” – with the fear they may be “utterly alone”, despite making this final journey together.
Patricia Cornelius’s play Do Not Go Gentle, which has opened at Sydney Theatre Company directed by Paige Rattray, takes its title from a famous Dylan Thomas poem. It is a richly layered work that co-opts British naval Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition of 1910-12 to the south pole as a metaphor for ageing and dementia.
Originally premiering at Melbourne’s small fortyfivedownstairs theatre in 2010, Do Not Go Gentle excavates profound human territory: the fear we are wasting our finite time; the trauma of family violence; and the difficulty some men have in telling partners and children they love them.
There is poignancy but no easy sentimentality as Cornelius mines seams of deeply human comedy, while Rattray is attuned to the play’s poetic rhythms and snappy pace. Set upon huge white polystyrene icebergs and glaciers – a physical manifestation of the fanciful Arctic landscape of the mind of a modern-day Scott (Philip Quast) – there are only occasional literal glimpses of reality, where this band of adventurers are sequestered in an aged care home.
The puzzling question is why it took this play so long to be given a mainstage production. Indeed, until recent times, mainstages roundly shunned Cornelius’s prolific and critically lauded work. Now 70, the Melbourne playwright has said in an interview that middle-class people are “terrified” of the voice of the underclass, who are usually her subject. Perhaps Australian mainstages have historically been guided by middle-class sensibilities unwilling to be discomfited.
Explorer Evans, beautifully embodied by veteran actor Peter Carroll, channels rage into the class struggle, pamphleteering even as he is dying: “Rage against that which divides us, that which pits worker against worker, against shameless and brutal exploitation.”
Evans effusively and comically basks in the power of words and the fire in his belly, laying claim to being a “dirty commie bastard” and a “mad Trotskyite”, while accusing a fellow explorer, Bowers (Brigid Zengeni) – who rails against people “whining” about economic disadvantage – of “joining forces with the upper classes and happily absorbing their ideas of the worthy and the worthless”.
We come to understand that Bowers has early onset dementia. After a visit from her husband, Alex (Josh McConville), brandishing photos of their children, she tells the other explorers: “Perhaps I never married, nor had children.” She rationalises her caesarean mark as possibly an appendix scar. Her panic at being unable to access her memories is emotionally affecting.
Somehow, though, the tone is never depressing, even as the trekkers are presented in two scenes cocooned inside sleeping bags, reminding us of how the frozen bodies of the real Scott and two of his party were eventually found. These bags are ingeniously strung vertically from the stage ceiling: facing the audience as they hang like chrysalises, the explorers wittily bicker amid the tempest of snow and mental decay.
Explorer Wilson (Vanessa Downing) even turns the disinhibition of dementia into joyous scenes as she strips off her clothes and insists Scott “devour” her, thus reclaiming her bodily autonomy and resisting ageism that assumes older people are uninterested in sex. Indeed, some of the best scenes occur when the actors pair off in such intimate pas de deux.
Although this play was written long before the pandemic forced cruel barriers between nursing home residents and their families, there is catharsis watching an artfully rich portrayal of our elders in its aftermath. To be solipsistic for a moment, my mind wandered during the performance to marking the occasion of my late mother’s birthday last year: speaking with her on a phone at her aged care facility, a pane of glass between us.
Of special note is operatic soprano Marilyn Richardson, who is 87 and plays the role of Maria, a Serbian émigré struggling with the foreign landscape of this icy, aged care world. Richardson sings short bursts of arias penned by Verdi and Greig, a reminder that music has a critical role to play for people with dementia in triggering memories, while providing a soothing balm for the audience as the art onstage is elevated to a higher plane.
The work briefly explores arguments over voluntary euthanasia, but its chief message from the precipice of no return is to call back to those of us still in our prime: dare to embrace new experiences that are rich in meaning in order to live your life well.
Do Not Go Gentle is at the Roslyn Packer theatre until 17 June