Once in Royal David’s City
Review by Rhys Tarling
Throughout Michael Gow‘s Once in Royal David’s City, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to Alejandro Innaritu’s 2014 film Birdman. Both works feature a protagonist with an inhuman power to warp the reality of the stage/film set, and then render that power toothless by locking them in stories and circumstances where they can do little but be consumed by their own sense of uselessness – a good chunk of Once in Royal David’s City is theatre geek/teacher Will by the bedside of his near-dead elderly mother, and a good chunk of Birdman is actor Riggan Thompson being relentlessly taunted by his demonic ego; in essence, they are about an artist’s castration, about an artist’s finely honed sense that they’re navigating a world that doesn’t care about them. That they both manage to find some peace in the end thanks to a woman in their life who they’re not having sex with closes the endless loop of their symbolic castration, I think. Don’t ask me how I arrived there – call it a gut feeling.
Once in Royal David’s City begins with Will (Jason Klarwein) on a blank stage. The usual stunning set designs that populate a Black Swan production are nowhere to be found; there’s not even the fancy lighting that you can usually count on for atmosphere in a cheap production. He asks us to imagine he’s at an airport. Slowly but surely he conjures the world with a monologue and a breathtaking performance. Klarwein brings so much passion (that borders on manic zeal) to his role and is so disarmingly charming even when he’s being kind of a pompous dude, that I was sure he wrote Once in Royal David’s City. I was gobsmacked to find that that wasn’t the case. He, Penny Everingham as his ailing mother, and Adam Booth as the doctor are the backbone of Once in Royal David’s City. Steve Turner gets to be Will’s sickly father, a religious man, and a random rude little boy riding a scooter and he, as he was in Tartuffe, is exceptionally funny and magnetic.
Although the production begins with nothing on stage, it doesn’t remain that way for long. Because this play wears its Brechtian-ness on its sleeve like a tribal tattoo, the re-arrangement of sets is not a breaking of the play’s reality but rather an enhancement of it. To wit, when Will closes the curtain and speaks directly to the audience, the lighting and motion colours and bestows a mercurial, ethereal mood upon the curtain; the effect is rather beautiful. He pulls back the curtains and what is there is a hospital set worthy of Black Swan Theatre Company. At other times when the curtains are closed again, we are privy to a shadow play that hilariously if briefly details the history of class warfare. Great work by the choreographer here, Nerida Matthaei, who works in perfect sync with director Sam Strong.
Once in Royal David’s City is fitfully manic, contemplative, and rich. That it’s the story of an artist who feels dislodged from the world and it’s never for a moment pretentious or self-important about it, is an impressive feat in and of itself. It may be a work that is constantly reminding you of the artificiality of itself, but don’t be too surprised if you find its well-choreographed fantasy to speak the truth to your deepest fears and hopes.
Once in Royal David’s City runs until April 9 at Heath Ledger Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the Black Swan website here.