The first five minutes of Daniel Keene’s The Nightwatchman make an interesting prelude movement to what follows, a subtle sort of prologue to the play’s poetic treatment of memory and nostalgia. Helen (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley) and Michael (Brad Williams) have returned to their childhood home to help their blind and agèd father, Bill (Roger Oakley), sell up and move to an aged-care facility. The play, presented by If Theatre and now on at Theatreworks in St Kilda, opens with Helen and Michael, nearing middle age themselves, looking out over the garden of their youth, bickering about their responsibilities at this difficult time:
—What do you want from me—We were close when we were young—Have I changed that much—Our father needs us—I am who I am—The past is the past—
The air is one of impatience, impatience not so much with one another, but with the empty formulas. Ellerton-Ashley and Williams deliver the words in a detached, probing manner, almost rapidly, as though trying to push through the surface pabulum, the platitudes, to something else, something beyond the words.
And then, there is a chink, a puncture in the façade of familiar phrases:
—I don’t know what I’m saying—I’m talking—I’m just talking—Perhaps we’ve said nothing for too long—
And from the void beneath, the spectral world of things past, a ghostly light shines through. Memories dapple the present: the house, the garden and their parents, as they once were, young and happy. Communication between the siblings gradually becomes more fluent, more meaningful. Then Bill emerges from the house, and the play, again, begins.
It is a finely worked study of the borderland between remembering and forgetting, the strange half-world of nostalgia, which is partly a kind of remembering, and partly a kind of forgetting.
Bill, a widower, refuses to surrender what remains of his life to age or infirmity. But there are lapses. They are lapses in his memory, of course—he forgets where he is, what he is doing—but as such they are also lapses in his awareness of the present, of reality, interrupting his determined self-possession:
—Often the past seems so real—the present seems so far away.
And, for Bill, that is why he must leave now, without regret. It is not only the practical question of caring for himself; there is also the spiritual question. By staying in the family home, where the gulf between things as he remembers them and things as they really are grows ever wider, he agitates a tendency for sentimental reverie, a mingling of memories with fictions that destroy the fierce spirit that is his defining quality.
The action takes place at dusk, everything wreathed in a sort of haze; it is the hour when the present is most haunted by the past, when faces, places, names, sensations and emotions resurface, tantalising with the return of lost realities, but taunting also with their insufficiency and incompleteness. These memories at this hour suggest both the happy notion that the day might be re-lived, and the grim certainty that the night must fall: false hope and fatalistic despair, merged in the halflight.
What is most artfully realised in this play, and in this production, is Bill’s determination, fortified by alcohol, to resist these threshold emotions. He admits the necessity of the nursing home, but does not despair. He knows his memory is bad and getting worse, but does not seek refuge in the twilight of nostalgic dreaming. Perhaps, because of his blindness, because he has already lived for so many years as a kind of nightwatchman, staring into the darkness, he carries a sense of authentic presence, making do with memory’s meagre scraps, if meagre scraps are all that are authentic.
This sense of authenticity manifests in what we see of Bill’s love for his children, which is neither denied nor exaggerated. His off-hand way with the family home is not a rejection of family, but, in part, an attempt to liberate Helen and Michael from its twilight influence. Helen, in particular, overwhelmed by adult responsibilities, feels strongly the lure of the threshold dream, the possibility of re-entering the garden of childhood. The garden, at night, in dreams, tempts her, suggesting the ideal unity and harmony that lacks in her own life.
Michael, a photographer, sees that the garden is no longer beautiful, that it is no longer what it once was. He is free from the twilight hope of eternal summer, but dogged by despair at the impermanence of things. It is a feeling that has chilled his life, discouraging his participation in the world, from connecting with people and places that might produce joy but which must inevitably dissolve. He is free, but freedom in the world has a cold taste.
The cold note is touched elegantly in this production. In Lisa Mibus’s warm lighting design, so evocative of twilight and reminiscence, there is always a blue highlight, a cool edge to everything we see. Similarly, in Ben Keene’s compositions, there are sentimental passages and minor-key moods suggestive of regret, but then there is always the cold note, the mild dissonance, the tendency toward something atonal.
I called the prologue subtle, and I think that subtlety is the true character of this production. It is not a matter of understatement, but more a quiet forcefulness, typified by Roger Oakley’s convincing performance in the lead. There are words and phrases here that could easily have been fraught full of obscuring sentiment, but which, under Matt Scholten’s direction, become transparent, revealing with a cool clarity the intricate structures inspired by different kinds of remembering and different kinds of forgetting. On the other hand, the coldness is not allowed to dominate either. The story is, ultimately, a very tender one.
It is interesting to consider this production against Patricia Cornelius’s Do Not Go Gentle, recently directed by Julian Meyrick at Fortyfivedownstairs. One doubts that Keene’s Bill would be comfortable in Cornelius’s nursing home. Do Not Go Gentle projects an operatic conflict onto the struggle between remembering and forgetting, using the stark imagery of Antarctica, the heroic narrative of Scott’s demise, dramatic lighting and Dylan Thomas’s pyrotechnic rage. In Keene’s drama, the failure of memory has fewer tragic overtones.
For Bill, the failure of memory sharpens his desire to reconnect with the present, with reality. He is sensitive to what he has lost—his wife, his youth, his sight—but recognises that they are utterly lost, that there can be no return. He does not look to nostalgia for consolation. Of course he wants to hold onto such key memories as he does retain, the most prominent stars in the constellation of his personality, but will not do so by reinforcing them with fantasy.
Memories, unmixed with dreams, carry with them the truth of life’s transience. They define who we are in the immediate present, but also distinguish us from previous identities. There is a distinct Zen streak running through this play. The garden itself is scarcely described, except for a prominent cherry tree which we learn has blossomed early. The Chekhovian overtones of this are patent, the past living into the present, but the cherry blossom is also a Zen symbol for the fleetingness of life. This connection is evoked in a wonderful scene where Bill recalls a Japanese folk story, one that Helen had performed in many years ago while still at school. It is an intense and blissful scene, where memories of the past burst with immediacy, affirming the miracle of the present, the family’s reunion and their enduring love for one another.
24 Nov 2010 – 12 Dec 2010
Tickets from Theatreworks in St Kilda.