When broaching the task of critiquing Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll — a play at once deceivingly complex and disarmingly simplistic, a steady drip-drip-drip of social commentary told through the funnel of Aussie kitchen sink drama — one is tempted to use a word attached time and time again over the decades to this searing, high-impact work and certain to be attached countless more: timeless.
In one of many glorious contradictions, Lawler’s lauded magnum opus, first performed in 1955 and subsequently bestowed with an endless Christmas dinner of critical blessings and endorsements, is a product of and about a distinct time, place and demography — 1950’s lower/middle class in Melbourne, Australia — but all these sunsets later plays with freshness and vitality.
Historical without mentioning pertinent historic occurrences (the end of the Korean War, the post-war boom in babies and European migrants, etcetera), Lawler, consciously or nay, bathed the script in an essence of agelessness, the kind of universally relevant theatre that has kept audiences topping up their glasses in the manner of watching and re-watching the greats: Miller’s Death of a Salesman; Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The productions that stay with us, simmering somewhere in the public conscience.
If timelessness is the play’s ultimate selling point, its reluctance to slip through the hour glass as doggedly determined as its gruff testosterone-charged male characters, how strange — chalk up another contradiction — that the crux of the story’s subtext relies on the passing of time. For sixteen summers Roo (Steve Le Marquand) and Barney (Travis McMahon) have coasted through life with the same formula: work the fields cutting cane in the North of the country and spend the seasonal lay-off in Melbourne lazing about with two barmaids.
On the 17th summer, things have changed: one of the barmaids, Nancy, is out of the picture and Olive (Alison Whyte) has sourced a friend, Pearl (Helen Thomson) to fill her role. Roo and Olive are lovers; Barney and Pearl awkwardly build a relationship from the ground up, bolstered by alcohol and mutual friends, like teenagers who either hook up or deal with being third wheels.
At two hours and 50 minutes (including two 15-minute intervals) the running time of this Belvoir St production is a big’un, but tight direction from veteran Neil Armfield and a stable of excellent performances (Steve Le Marquand is, by a nudge, the stand-out) keep the minutes whisking by. The writing is precise throughout, the monologue segues smooth and natural, but it’s the third act that’s the load-bearing clincher. It’s only when the climax hits that the scope of Lawler’s vision provides a clear context that tints the many moments that lead up to it in a different, darker glow.
There are plenty of jokes but Summer of the Seventheeth Doll is a cynical and bruising work. It exists in a nebulous distance between classes and aspirations, an intersection between past and progress where nostalgic memories combined with cold realities of an imagined future provide prisons for the characters, partly self-made, partly societal, and fully, in some context, shared with audiences.
It packs a powerful punch, and Lawler’s words have a lot of swing left in them.
The details: Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre until February 18. Tickets on the MTC website. The production is also part of Queensland Theatre Company’s season, opening February 22.