A Forgotten Soldier: Review of Griffin Theatre’s The Floating World
John Romeril’s The Floating World had its first staging in Melbourne in 1974, and since then this hidden treasure of Australian theatre has largely been missing from our stages … until now. Sam Strong’s latest production has just opened at the Stables with the Griffin Theatre Company.
Set on a luxury cruise ship in the 1970s, Les and Irene Harding are enjoying what is probably their first vacation in a long time, and Les is availing himself of the opportunity by consuming more drinks than would be recommended. In this setting, the pair meets and mingles with other passengers and crew. From here, the play could be seen as a comedy (at least for a while), performing a send up of such cruises, the people on board and those that work there. The obligatory standup comic (entertainment officer, played to perfection by Justin Smith) only adds to this. However the play takes a dark turn. Les saw service during World War Two and spent time as a prisoner of war in a Japanese concentration camp. As the play progresses Les begins to have flashbacks to his harrowing experiences and they gradually begin to invade his reality. Scenes which began safely in the real world are increasingly mixed with Les’ memories and delusions as he becomes ever more unhinged. His wife and those around him, although conscious that something is very wrong, have no inclination of the full extent of Les’ state until it is too late.
The play makes an interesting analysis of a man who has been coping with his inner-demons for a long time and has reached the end. Les’ final monologue reveals the true extent of what he has experienced and witnessed, and the horror that he has repressed and tried to ignore. It is a common story among soldiers: they are made to believe that they should be able to cope with any conditions, to endure and come through – it is what is meant to be a man and a soldier. And so these horrors are repressed, but they never truly leave and are always lurking below waiting for the right conditions to resurface.
Although written in the 70s and about post-traumatic stress disorder, the play still has great relevance to contemporary Australian society and attitudes towards mental health. Les is in every scene the typical Aussie bloke. He has carried and repressed great horrors and strains for years and years, and although he hides behind a certain larrikinism he is now at breaking point. Yet even so, with a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude he presses on, denying that anything is wrong and refusing to take anyone into his confidence. Without a release valve it all becomes too much and the result is a breakdown. More than 30 years on this is still a common story and one many people would recognize, a sign of the play’s continuing relevance (thanks to the deft hand of Director Sam Strong).
The Floating World also represents a fine piece of writing. Romeril has a keen grip on what is a uniquely Australian style of comedy, which he mixes with the tragedy; likewise does he achieve a successful blend of realism and surrealism, making for a rich, layered and engaging text. At times the play may suffer from scenes being too long, particularly the closing scenes of both acts I and II, which continue on for longer than necessary once their point has been made. However, it is the only drawback from what is otherwise a brilliant piece of writing.
It seems only fitting that the writing is performed with equal success. Peter Kowitz plays Les Harding, a former WWII prisoner of war suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is certainly a difficult role to play; a man desperately trying to keep it together whilst slowly coming apart at the seams, yet Kowitz pulled it off magnificently. He is simply compelling as this lonely, isolated and suffering man. There is a beautiful weight to his performance – it is as if the world is truly on his shoulders. If anything is to be criticised it is his initial pacing and clarity during the earlier sections of the play. The audience needed more time to settle into his gruff, rather ocker Australian speech patterns. This aside however, Kowitz tackled the colossal monologue at the play’s conclusion with great success. Kowitz was unrelenting as he drilled deep, distressingly vulnerable to the bitter end.
Valerie Bader played Irene Harding, Les’ wife. Bader was hilarious and touching as this naïve woman who suffers in an unhappy marriage. Bader was lovely to watch on stage and produced some genuinely poignant moments, bringing to life this recognisably Australian archetype. Similarly, Tony Llewellyn-Jones was perfectly cast as Herbert Robinson, the retired British Vice-Admiral. Llewellyn-Jones was delightfully consistent throughout and a good stabilising force for this production. He was the embodiment of an ‘old timer’, and watching him dance was a real nostalgic treat.
The supporting cast was just as strong. Justin Smith (as the boat’s comic) had a particularly difficult job. His role, though largely a comedic one, was reliant on making intentionally bad jokes in a wedding singer-esque style. Nevertheless, Smith did it and he did it with pizazz. He was great fun and a joy to watch. Shingo Usami as the waiter was also a great addition. He was funny when required, but could be perfectly commanding as a Japanese soldier, not to mention charming when attempting to seduce Irene. Yet special mention must go to Justin Stewart Cotta as Harry/McLeod, a particular standout in this production. Cotta is very talented (inclusive of his musical interludes) and further possesses a wonderfully commanding voice for stage. Cotta has great presence which gives him the freedom to convincingly intertwine his fragmented roles.
This is a production that makes very few pretensions, and is refreshing for that reason alone. That it is actually about a serious subject, is well written, staged, performed and engaging only adds to the delight. This is a fine show from a collection of talented artists and is well worth a look. The Floating World is playing with the Griffin Theatre Company until the 16th of November. For more information see their website: http://www.griffintheatre.com.au/