Night on Bald Mountain

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We visit Bald Mountain and its characters – the nurse, the alcoholic, the goat-herder, the housekeeper, the professor and his protege – far removed from Patrick White’s desolate vision of 1960s Australia. Here, in 2014, Bald Mountain is a literal and figurative raw landscape; where it’s inhabitants cross and cut through rooms, the wild and each others psyches in a very real and contemporary manner. It’s a work rarely seen and one that White himself struggled with. He is reported to have described it as ‘a dishonest play’. Nonetheless, it’s a work as complex, interesting and as compelling as the very mountain described.

Ageing Professor Sword (Peter Carroll) and his alcoholic wife Miriam (Melita Jurisic) are living lives unexamined and unimagined by the ‘rhinestones of Sydney’. On Bald Mountain they’re surrounded by stray goats and secrets and are as isolated as their surroundings. The arrival of Nurse Summerhayes (Nikki Shiels) sparks an unfurling of unpolished events that take affect on all who dwell upon the lonely mountain.

Matthew Lutton’s production of Bald Mountain is gracious with dialogue and with time. At two and a half hours long, no nuance is left out of White’s original work. The length however is forgiven when acknowledging the difficult task Lutton would have had working with White’s loose structure and forever changing dramatic style. The piece hovers between psychological comedy, gothic tragedy and drama, never quite finding it’s place. Yet it’s the poetic nature of White’s writing and the strength of Lutton’s direction that allows this Bald Mountain to perfectly shift between a vast Australian landscape and a confined plywood playhouse, with Dale Ferguson’s set creating an expansive and consuming backdrop.

Ida Duelund Hansen’s cello accompaniment is hauntingly beautiful. Puncturing scenes with tension then switching to gather suspense and unravel nerves, she creates a sound space inclusive of both actors and audience and it’s a highlight of the production. That is, notwithstanding the fearless performance of Miriam Sword and Miss Quodling (Julie Forsyth) in a cackling kitchen conversation over a bottle of whiskey.

As strong and impressive as this show is, there are parts of the play that are difficult to watch or even like. There are elaborate displays of ego, delivered via dialogue heavy archetypes, and a showcase of mystery and unpredictability, as well as the underlying conflict between human nature and mother nature. This could however be it’s achievement as the mountain itself isn’t there to be liked, it is to be understood. Goats and all.

Night on Bald Mountain is playing at the Malthouse Theatre until 25 May.
For tickets visit boxoffice.malthousetheatre.com.au.

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