DYLAN Thomas’s famous poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is a passionate clarion call to live life to its utmost, even into old age. Such a philosophy of not going quietly – spelled out in the poem’s refrain, to ”Rage, rage against the dying of the light” – provides the starting point for Do Not Go Gentle, Patricia Cornelius’s wonderful new play about a group of characters in a nursing home, facing the trials and tribulations of old age.
The genius of Do Not Go Gentle, however, is that the characters double their roles in telling the parallel story of Scott of the Antarctic’s doomed expedition to the south pole and this astounding leap of poetic imagination sets up abundant connections between the image of Scott’s men trudging wearily one foot after another into blinding snow, and the creeping onset of senescence that dims the light for so many of our older folk.
Cornelius demonstrates remarkable control of tone, with delicate irony framing the heroism of Scott, and an utterly honest and unsentimental exploration of old age.
The script borrows judiciously from Scott’s diary to recreate iconic moments from the expedition – such as the devastating disappointment of discovering that Amundsen had beaten the British to the pole by a matter of weeks and the chilling stoicism of Captain Oates, who sacrifices himself so as not to be a burden on his comrades, famously stating: ”I am just going outside, and may be some time.”
Do Not Go Gentle benefits from an extraordinary cast, with superb performances from the likes of Terry Norris, Pamela Rabe, and Malcolm Robertson. Anne Phelan is an absolute delight, in a bitter-sweet portrait of a woman losing her inhibitions as well as her memory. Rhys McConnochie is yet to settle fully into the central role of Scott, causing some scenes to lack focus and rhythm; though his final lines are beautifully acted.
Director Julian Meyrick makes great spatial use of the wonderful expanse of 45 Downstairs, here given an ominous Damoclean setting by Marg Horwell’s stunning design of a collapsing roof. Irine Vela’s evocative soundscape completes a truly captivating production.
The poetry of age in an uncertain world
PATRICIA Cornelius’s award-winning play borrows its title from Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.
Perhaps the most beautiful villanelle written in English, Thomas’s poem celebrates the vivid life of old age, pressed hard up against death: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”.
Likewise, Do Not Go Gentle . . . explores the flare of vitality that reaches a desperate intensity in the face of death, through seven characters who live in an old people’s home.
The central character, Scott (Rhys McConnochie), is obsessed with the tragic heroism of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, a race he lost to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and that ultimately cost him his life.
In Cornelius’s hands, this expedition becomes a metaphor for the long defeat that is life itself, moving with a poetic suppleness between entries from Scott’s diary and the mundane details of life in an institution.
She evokes with unsentimental compassion the confusions and longings of old age or, in the case of Bowers (Pamela Rabe), a younger woman suffering from premature Alzheimer’s who doesn’t remember her own husband, of tragic memory loss.
Scott’s story provides a narrative spine from which emerges the stories of the various characters. Most powerfully, this double reality becomes a metaphor for the uncertain world Cornelius’s characters inhabit, with the white wastes of Antarctica a potent image of desolation. Yet, as in Thomas’s poem, the play is primarily a celebration of life. Cornelius’s characters, like the actors who play them, are funny, angry and defiant, and out of the poverties of their situation create a richness that is its own meaning.
Director Julian Meyrick has assembled an extraordinary cast that includes some of the best known names in the business, and the production generates many moments of sheer beauty. The play isn’t wholly successful: there are scenes where the conceit of the double reality isn’t sustained and Cornelius’s poetic language loses its tension.
But for most of its length it makes riveting and moving theatre, from the spine-tingling opening, in which Maria (Jan Friedl) emerges in her dressing-gown and sings a glorious aria.
It recalls Walter Pater’s insistence that all art aspires to the condition of music, yearning towards the mysteries of what can’t be expressed in words, and is as moving an image of mortality as I have seen in the theatre.
By Alison Croggan