I generally keep well away from films and plays that are set in the Australian outback or farmland.
It’s not because I dislike Australian talent – in fact, quite the opposite – but I feel that most of these stories tend to end up pretty similar: the ‘country hero’ versus the harsh and barren bushland, which he inevitably, and dramatically, overcomes in his own personal victory. Or something along those lines.
However Reg Cribb’s The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell took its audience on quite a different journey.
It is the tale of a young and eager actor Craig Castevich, played by Samuel Johnson (Rush, The Secret Life of Us), who has been cast as well-known Australian poet Daniel Gartrell in an upcoming film. Castevich makes it his mission to spend time with Gartrell himself (played by John Wood of Blue Heelers fame), in order to learn how to portray the poet realistically in the film. The performance then follows the relationship between these two clashing characters, delving into their minds, their secrets and their regrets.
In the case of this play, the story could be described as the journey of a ‘suburban hermit’ who is gradually consumed by the outback and its bitter childhood memories that continue to haunt him until his demise.
Or something along those lines.
The play also stars Marcella Russo (Neighbours) as Sarah, the poet’s daughter. Gartrell kindly refers to her as a ‘sad little suburban spinster’, as she struggles with relationships and has the social skills that could be compared to a shy 15-year-old.
Gartrell is first presented to us as a blunt and sarcastic (and naked) solitary man, who hates everyone except his daughter and who has a sense of humour that only he finds amusing. As the play progresses we explore the depths of Gartrell’s mindset: his constant cynicism and his all-consuming hallucinations, and the way that these traits play into Castevich’s mission to discover all there is to know about this deluded poet.
The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is an undeniably moving piece of theatre. The characters are complex and real, and the three actors show great commitment and bravery in their performances as they each slowly deteriorate. I particularly liked the way in which a scene managed to transform from an on-the-edge-of-your-seat fear to something clever and hilarious, surprising the audience and causing a simultaneous sigh of relief to vibrate through the seats.
Underlying the entirety of the play was the poetry that Gartrell had written, and the search for the meaning of his uncompleted poem entitled ‘Mt Ragged’. Lines from the poem are recited throughout the show, either by Gartrell himself or through a voiceover. One moment in the play I found particularly captivating was when Gartrell shouts his poem at Castevich, while covering his eyes and shaking him at dramatic points in the piece. A spotlight shone down, Castevich longed to escape, and Gartrell seemed to thoroughly enjoy making the young actor incredibly uncomfortable. It was dark – both physically and in tone – and intense, and it was near impossible to look away. It probably didn’t help that I was sitting front row centre, so I felt like I was the only one in the room and that the actors were all staring solidly and eerily at me and only me.
What made the performance all the more interesting was the set. The stage was made up of a section of a house surrounded by ghostly gum trees. The living room was made up of floral couches, tables, stools and a rug, with a backdrop made entirely of doors: large doors, small doors, doors from drawers and cupboards, and anything else you can think of, in various bright colours. I assume the idea of the doors added to the play’s concept of entrapment and an inability to escape, despite there being no physical barrier preventing anyone from leaving… but perhaps I’m reading too much into it.
I always get a wonderful sense of satisfaction when I leave a theatre after a great play, and this was no different. The plot was original (even though the ending seemed a tad over-the-top), the set was fantastic and the actors were professional and brilliantly directed. At 95 minutes long with no interval, I expected to be fidgety and in dire need of a toilet break, however I was surprisingly comfortable. It was a meaningful play with a powerful cast, and I look forward to seeing more from Straightjacket Productions.
The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell continues at fortyfivedownstairs until 12 June. Click here to book tickets or to find out more information.
Sofia Monkiewicz is a Journalism Honours student at La Trobe University and is a member of the upstart editorial team. She loves theatre and music, and you can also follow her on Twitter: @soffffff.