It’s been a couple of decades since the country saw Neil Armfield direct Essie Davis in Night on Bald Mountain and that was within a few years of Patrick White’s death and his work with the director in the latter part of his life. If Matthew Lutton’s wobbly and incoherent production proves nothing else, it is that Bald Mountain is White’s best play. It is the one where he comes closest to the American masters of intimacy and excruciation, to O’Neill and Tennessee Williams and Albee — though the director has no idea how to tally word and action or to inhabit the idiom of this kind of drama which maintains an absolute naturalism of surface to allow the undisclosed elements of symbolism and the raging stylisation of expressionism to do their work.
The production, however, does have one pitch-perfect performance (from Nikki Shiels as the young nurse who is also a seeker) and it has the advantage of some secure casting with Julie Forsyth as the goat-woman and Sue Jones as the housekeeper, though Peter Carroll is too old as the professor and Melita Jurisic’s performance as the wife is mannered beyond the wit of humankind. Besides, the production is stilted and clogged and suffers from the director’s inability to visualise the action or create coherent dramatic space though it’s true that the sound and fury of the text and its consistent overreaching grandeur do come through despite the pretentiousness of a set that looks like a plywood ziggurat constructed by housing estate hacks, a distracting young woman on double bass who also warbles and some uncharacteristically muddy lighting by Peter Jackson. Still this Bald Mountain, even though it’s a bit like a play reading dressed up as an oratorio with the pompous trappings of postmodern opera, does articulate the words, and some fraction of the vision, of the greatest writer in Australian history and the effect was to hush the audience with a sense of power and glory, however thwarted.
Robyn Nevin, fresh from the splendours of Neighbourhood Watch, was there with her husband Nicholas Hammond who has been seen around Melbourne with Pierce Brosnan, playing Louis XIV in the vicinity of Melbourne University’s Law Cloisters. Peter Rose, the editor of Australian Book Review, was there with his partner Christopher Menz from the National Gallery of Victoria and so was Michael Kantor who directed White’s The Ham Funeral when he ran the Malthouse. So too was Alison Whyte who was Olive in Neil Armfield’s very grand production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll with Nevin as the mother a couple of years ago.
The Doll is almost in every respect a more successful appropriation of the dominant mid-century American dramatic idiom though it does not have the same all-but-annihilating suggestions of depth and sublimity. This is a play set in some enclosed Australian bastion of interiority and goats. It is a bush Australia in which the mind roams like the mind of God or Satan, where goats cavort like those who will inherit the earth and spirituality can loom over the edge of a cliff or at the bottom of a bottle. It is a shatteringly ambitious play and if it had been done on Broadway in 1964 when it was written with Katherine Hepburn as the wife and James Mason as the professor and a director who could pummel White’s wonky construction into a somewhat better shape by demonstrating an empathy unawed by his genius, then the noble ruin of the play’s black magic might have alerted the world to the fact that a writer of great power was living in Sydney, Australia.
In fact, it was produced in Adelaide by John Tasker in a production that included the great Zoe Caldwell as the nurse and Alexander Archdale (her Warwick in Saint Joan) as the Professor.
Nikki Shiels carries Matthew Lutton’s all-but-disnatured Bald Mountain into the very teeth of credibility because she burns and purrs, she doubts and weeps with an absolute naturalness and authenticity. You can feel the space around her, you can breathe the air. On the other hand Peter Carroll as the professor is too cabined and confined. He’s too old-looking and spindly for us to believe fully when the spider of sex comes out of the jar. He is, of course, one of the greater actors in Australian history — think of The Christian Brothers or the thumb-sketch of a French political mandarin in Stuff Happens — but he is wrong for this role, a great-grandad not a bogeyman daddy. None of which is to deny that Carroll’s vocal mastery, even in the vicinity of Lutton’s bewildering direction, sometime allows him to sound like he’s carving the words on a stone monument to Patrick White.
Julie Forsyth, on the other hand, is well within her natural, earthy and crypto-comic range as the goat lady and her raucous shrieking banter does issue into some intimation of pity and terror at the end. It’s unfortunate though, that Matthew Lutton shows little ability to help his actors carve out any expanse of dramatic viability in a production that might as easily be taking place in the choir loft of a church. Dale Ferguson’s monumental tiered wooden set is an absurdity (presumably dictated by the director) which allows the action to take place any which way, on multiple levels, united only by a somewhat spectacular randomness.
Even a fine actress such as Sue Jones as the housekeeper needs more help than Lutton gives her. Luke Mullins is nowhere as the young admirer of professor and girl. Then, at the centre of it all, is Melita Jurisic’s overblown, mannered performance as the wife. She has snatches of realism in the early evocation of illness and hypochondria but when the character hits the bottle the characterisation hits the skids. The role is, to a fault, Mary Tyrone with an Australian accent and it requires an actress of, say, Helen Morse’s fire and restraint. Jurisic comes across like a sodden trifle, self-delighting and unconvincing.
The play, however, survives all this. For all its battering length and creaking exposition, its histrionic pessimism and its never-quite-earned religiosity, this play is something. Even in this fumbling Matthew Lutton production, which exhibits nothing so much as the daring of its pretensions, there is the remote but unmistakable glow of greatness.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free