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Images Credit: Jeff Busby

POSTED: 22 SEPTEMBER 2009

One Night the Moon

(Malthouse Theatre | Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Southbank, Melbourne | Until 3 October)

You probably remember being read the classic fables as a kid. Some of them probably gave you an insight into how the world works. Others were just uninteresting yarns that now fade into the yellowed pages of your childhood storybook.

But the really good ones, the clever, simple and timeless ones leave you with pithy, secular commandments to live by. Hands up if you’ve never secretly let slip a satisfying “slow and steady wins the race, you know!”.

One Night the Moon, the theatrical adaptation of the 2001 film of the same name, appears to be an attempt to create a modern Australian fable. It follows the simple, tragic story of the white child lost in the untamed Australian wilderness and the despairing but intractable parents who, out of ignorance, refuse the help of an experienced local Aborigine.

It is a variation on a theme that we’re highly familiar with in this country and something that could undoubtedly resonate with an audience who largely no longer deny the appalling race relations of our recent history. And it’s a noble attempt.

Which is why it’s so disappointing that this production misses the mark.

Drawing strongly from the film, which is itself anchored in the music of Australian greats such as Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly, the stage show plays out more like a modern operetta. The five-piece band remains on stage throughout and provides the soundtrack, the orchestra, and, it must be said, the ballast.

Headed and in part composed by Mairead Hannan, the band is the strongest element of a show that feels more like a cobbling together of novelties than an entirely realised vision.

This results in a production that is, sadly, less than the sum of its parts.

It’s quite puzzling too, because the individual ingredients are not in themselves lacking. The acting and singing is generally good. Mark Seymour as Jim is a surprise package. Ursula Yovich is reliably good as the wife of Albert the Aboriginal tracker. But apart from a few moments, including Seymour’s tough and plaintive soliloquy from his rocking chair — the characters never quite rise above being standard archetypes, and despite the best efforts of the performers the tragedy translates as a type of dumb show.

You know you’re supposed to care about the sadness, the injustice, and the symbolic significance that unfolds. You just don’t.

And I couldn’t help but feel a sense of discomfort at the treatment of the Aboriginal art of tracking. It smacked of outdated mysticism and from where I sat condescended the very people it attempted to represent.

The skill and experience that has gone into this show is undeniable. Wesley Enoch’s directing, John Romeril’s adaptation, Niklas Pajanti on lighting are all at once committed and yet distant. The set is adaptive and attractive and the animation at the beginning is an absorbing touch but promises more whimsy than the rest of the show delivers.

It is the unwieldy knitting together of these otherwise fine fragments that makes for a slightly potholed, heavy treatment that will itself, I’m sad to say, be relegated to the unremarkable, yellowing pages of theatre history.

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