Theatre review: Do Not Go Gentle, Roslyn Packer Theatre

Patricia Cornelius' award-winning play about ageing and raging against the dying of the light is remounted in this large-scale production.

Sydney Theatre Company’s Do Not Go Gentle interweaves the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic Terra Nova 1912 expedition to reach the South Pole in Antarctica, with a broad and deeply analogous meditation on regret, ageing, dementia and the dogged determination to survive.

Set against the barren landscape of mountainous snowdrifts crafted by stage designer Charles Davis, director Paige Rattray tenderly takes Patricia Cornelius’ harrowing and lyrical material to explore the late-life experiences of the so-called ‘Boomer’ generation, replete with its historic rapacious appetites: ‘I yearned for a life of epic proportions and that’s exactly what I got.’

As the play progresses, the audience is gradually made aware of the subliminal narrative – the interior world of the characters – which begins to take over. Philip Quast, playing Scott, leads the band of explorers/patients, Evans (Peter Carroll), Wilson (Vanessa Downing), Oates (John Gaden) and Bowers (Brigid Zengeni), who are tethered, trudging endlessly forward, yet who remain in place upon the icy tundra. A mysterious woman, Maria (Marilyn Richardson), performs operatic laments, while a ‘man beast’ (Josh McConville) lopes up and down the peaks. What is real, one questions, and what is the product of the imagination of a deteriorating mind?

Do Not Go Gentle leans heavily into the symbolic, almost too heavily, constructing the Scott exhibition in league with the fate of the characters’ real struggles against the inevitable horizon awaiting us. There is a shameless indulgence in imbuing the minutiae of the everyday experience of ageing and, yes, dying, with a heroism based on the individual versus fate. Cornelius’ characters are outraged by their own mortality and protest, claiming unique exceptionalism, reflecting the generation’s trademark of taking and taking from the world, regardless of the cost.

It is a majestic and aesthetically striking production, with excellent precision and attention to detail from lighting designer Paul Jackson, composer and sound designer James Brown and costume coordinator Samantha Perkins, yet the two acts seem somehow asymmetrical, weighing in at an overlong 130 minutes plus interval, with a first half that could’ve been compressed and a second that feels rushed.      

Originally performed at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, in 2010, the production post-COVID has accumulated more sorrowful resonance as the pandemic disproportionately affected the vulnerable elderly, from whom many of us were separated in an attempt to protect them. 

Read: The undiscovered country: ageing and dementia on stage

Scott reached the South Pole, yes; however, the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, beat him to it, and Scott perished on the return journey. Rattray prompts the audience to consider the mundanity of a second-best life, haunted by delusions of grandeur, something of which we are mostly all guilty.

Do Not Go Gentle makes much of the lofty ambition and portent in the title, drawn from Dylan Thomas’ famous poem:

‘Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

No matter one’s experience, there is an inherent poignant humanity here.  

Do Not Go Gentle by Patricia Cornelius
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company
Director: Paige Rattray

Designer: Charles Davis
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Composer and Sound Designer: James Brown
Assistant Director: Bruce Spence
Fight, Movement and Intimacy Director: Nigel Poulton
Associate Voice and Text Coach  Angela Nica Sullen

Cast: Peter Carroll, Vanessa Downing, John Gaden, Josh McConville, Philip Quast, Marilyn Richardson, Brigid Zengeni
Tickets: $57-$104

Do Not Go Gentle will be performed until 17 June 2023.

Anna Westbrook is an interdisciplinary queer feminist storyteller, critic, creative producer, poet, and freelance educator, currently working on her second novel and a collection of essays. She has a PhD in writing from the University of New South Wales and is the author of Dark Fires Shall Burn.