If the end of the world was upon you, how would you respond? Hopeful optimism? Or perhaps defiant acceptance? It’s a question that has found its way into social consciousness a lot over the last few years, and it forms an integral part of Sydney Theatre Company’s On the Beach.
Directed by Kip Williams and based on Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel of the same name, On the Beach follows the experiences of four friends as they navigate the final moments of humanity. Set in Melbourne in 1963, the entire Northern Hemisphere has been destroyed by World War Three, referred to as The Short War. Few countries have managed to survive the devastating nuclear fallout and now, as the radioactive cloud begins to move south, Australia is suddenly under threat.
Peter and Mary Holmes (Ben O’Toole and Michelle Lim Davidson) have a baby girl and a blinding optimism. Peter is a Lieutenant in the navy assisting an American crew on the USS Scorpion, lead by Commander Dwight Towers (Tai Hara). There is a palpable sadness in the American officer and, as the story unfolds, we discover he once had a wife and two children.
Moira Davidson’s (Contessa Treffone) way of dealing with impending doom is to drink and flirt as if every day was her last, because one day, it really will be. Her frivolous and hedonistic behaviour forms a striking contrast to that of her friends. As she forms a relationship with Dwight, it is love and acceptance that gives purpose to what is left of her life.
Purpose is also what drives Peter, whose desperate need for hope sees him take one final mission on the USS Scorpion. The crew believe it is a rescue mission, but who is it that really needs to be saved?
One of the most insightful observations the play makes is the varying ways in which individuals deal with loss and grief. Mary exists in denial, moving through each day as if nothing has changed but every so often the cracks begin to show in a beautiful display of vulnerability. Her husband Peter relies on hope to propel him through the day, and it is heart-breaking once this is shattered. It would be easy to label Moira as reckless, but is she simply a realist? Through their romance, Moira and Dwight discover a meaning to life which both thought was lost.
Written by Tommy Murphy, this adaptation casts no judgement on how each of the group chose to face their own mortality. Grief is a deeply personal experience, with the play making it clear that there is no ‘right’ way to grieve.
The incredible cast take you on an emotional journey that will leave you stunned. Each character goes through a transformation that is artfully and skilfully depicted on stage. This is enhanced by the simple but effective set design (Michael Hankin), with the revolving, circular stage creating movement and creative transitions between scenes. The use of large, sheer curtains and lighting to create and enhance shadows really adds gravitas to key moments. Rather than overwhelm, the staging enhanced and perfectly supported the performers and the story.
It’s not difficult to see the influences of the Cold War on Shute’s original 1950s text, embodying denial and paranoia. But On The Beach now hits a little closer to home, bringing to mind the feelings of uncertainty which dominated the recent pandemic, fears of nuclear attack with the war on Ukraine and the ever present hopelessness of the climate crisis. Although originally conceived as a fictional take on a dystopian future, it seems On the Beach isn’t as fictional as Shute first imagined.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
On the Beach will run until the 12 August 2023.
For more information and to buy tickets head to the Sydney Theatre Company website.
Reviewer attended on the 25 July 2023.
Photos: Daniel Boud