‘Precision and artistry’: 35 years of Away, the quintessentially Australian summer play

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Inner city Sydney, January 1986, early evening. The opening night of a new play by Michael Gow. Outside the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross, home to Griffin Theatre Company, the temperature is hovering in the mid-30s. Inside, it’s much the same, only more oppressive.

The audience can only hope Away is good enough to compensate for the conditions, or short enough to render them tolerable.

“Everyone was madly fanning themselves with a program,” recalls Gow. “There was only one little air-conditioner back then and it was dripping water on to the stage.”

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The flapping of programs gave way to deep applause by the end of the play, Gow says. “The old Stables was too low for a standing ovation. But there was prolonged applause and cheering and the cast returned to the stage many times. The buzz afterwards in that tiny foyer was intense.”

That first production of Away, a play set around three Australian families on a summer holiday in the 60s, was directed by Peter Kingston and staged very simply. “Just a sand floor rising up into the corner, a blue cyclorama, buckets of water for the storm scene. It was entirely actor-powered,” Gow says.

“It was quite a young cast, too … Probably younger than you would see in a production today. It almost had a sense of dress-ups about it, as though they were ridiculing being grown-ups. But it seemed to work.”

Vanessa Downing was in that production. “I remember it being one of the most joyous rehearsals of anything I’ve ever done,” she says. “Peter [Kingston] had asked Michael [Gow] to write the play in about three weeks. We were getting new scenes while we were rehearsing. But I remember knowing from the start it was all going to work. Everything rang true.”

Away focuses on three families, all of whom have brought their cares and woes on holiday. Roy and Coral are grieving the loss of a son killed in Vietnam. Harry and Vic want one last happy holiday with their terminally ill son, Tom. Meanwhile, the angry Gwen is determined to have a perfect holiday with her husband, Jim, and daughter, Meg – who met Tom in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

All are drawn together when a wild storm lashes the campsite, a cathartic intervention that opens the door to reconciliation, acceptance and healing.

Heather Mitchell was in the audience that first night. “I was blown away, deeply moved,” she says.

Mitchell would later feature in the 2017 Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company co-production of Away. “I was in my 20s then and it felt like a play for the age I was – for the time it was – about how Australia was and how families are. I loved the quality of the writing. There were no wasted words or characters. Everything was brilliantly vivid.”

The season sold out within a couple of days and Away went on to become not just one of the most-performed plays in Australia but also the “the most-loved”, according to Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre, which is staging a 35th-anniversary production of the play.

“It captures a feeling of Australia that I don’t think you see in other work,” says Daniel Evans, the director of La Boite’s production. “It’s set in 1967 when we were growing up as a nation – when we were beginning to reckon with the past and plant seeds for the future. Michael captures all that through the lives of ordinary people with such precision and artistry.”

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Gow’s portrait of summer holidays in beachside shacks, cheap camping grounds and a high school production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is powerfully nostalgic for some. But Away seems to appeal across the generations in ways other plays cannot, Evans says.

“At its heart the play is about grief and grieving, and we are all grieving a little bit at the moment,” Evans says. “If you’re an artist, you’re grieving opportunities lost. If you’re young, you are grieving all the things you’ve missed. We’re all grieving not seeing our families or friends. But Away shows us that grief can be a transformative experience. That’s why we feel really motivated to do this show. We feel like we have a responsibility.”

Away has been produced in every Australian state and territory since 1986. It has also been produced in Scotland, England, the United States and in translation by the students of a drama academy in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Everyone talks about what a restorative play Away is, but to me it’s always been about death

Michael Gow

Gow recalls a production in Sacramento, California: “After the show a man came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘I never realised you Aussies were in Vietnam.’ It was complete news to him. Americans see it as a ‘Vietnam play’ because the collective trauma of that is still so enormous.”

It was during rehearsals for the Sydney Theatre Company’s 1987 production of Away that Gow became aware that it was also an AIDS play. “It’s very much about that period and young people dying before their parents. Everyone talks about what a restorative play Away is, but to me it’s always been about death.”

British productions of Away tend to miss the point, Gow says. “For them it’s just a bunch of charming colonials trying to do Shakespeare.”

To this day, no one has adapted the play for film.

“There were people who wanted to do it but I think it’s impossible,” Gow says. “It’s an entirely theatrical fabrication that can only exist in a theatre because it’s built of references to theatre. By the time a movie producer got to the point where they could tell me what it would be like on screen, it wouldn’t be Away any more.”

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Wes Anderson’s 2012 coming-of-age film Moonrise Kingdom is the closest thing to Away that Gow has encountered in another medium. “I sometimes wonder what might have happened if we’d had a local film culture that would allow someone like Wes Anderson to emerge here,” he says.

The period Away describes “is as remote as fifth-century Athens to young people today”, Gow says. “One day we might need a glossary with it. It’s such a compendium of the way we used to speak and respond.

“But for me, plays are about language. Maybe that makes me a bit of an old fart. But that’s what you remember beyond the manipulations of plot – the language of a schoolmaster’s thank-you speech. The mad poetry of it all. Maybe that’s what will last. But who knows?”

• Away by Michael Gow is showing at La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane until 13 November

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