★★★★☆ A fascinating exposition of White’s mighty love story set in a quirky world where opposites attract.

Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
October 14, 2015

Suspended somewhere between lighting designer Nigel Levings’ canvas “sky”, and set and costume designer Michael Hankin’s burnt turf, the Zephyr Quartet, grounded like compass points, play pizzicato. We sit in the round, awaiting Patrick White’s polarised characters. A mound of logs is the focal point of the barren setting and the spicy aroma of dry grass threatens hay fever. The severely asthmatic White may be turning in his 25-year cold grave.

Incoming audience footfalls drive intermittent wafts of eucalyptus skyward, as leaves are crushed. It doesn’t get any more Australian than this bush scene; the small town home of the Whalley and Hogben families. They are about to reveal the adage about choosing relatives, applies also to neighbours. Theirs is the domain of the longneck, wife-beater singlets, outings to the local dump and today, a funeral.

Kris McQuade announces the commencement of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow; her words like a warm hug herald it’s on for young and old. The fast pace in the vast space requires high concentration, but the rewards are immense. Under the exceptional direction of Chris Drummond, the actors orbit the musicians, weaving and marching between our seats. This is not Drummond’s rewrite; it is word-for-word White’s short story Down at the Dump, and the Director turns what is almost certainly a logistical nightmare, into a fantastic spectator sport with minimalist props and simple, earthy costumes.

Paul Blackwell, Kris McQuade, Lucy Lehmann, and James Smith seamlessly transition between narrative and multiple characters, displaying phenomenal theatrical agility whilst delivering White’s genius one-liners with flawless pace and poignancy. Blackwell’s salt and vinegar Myrtle Hogben and McQuade’s councillor Les Hogben are so well conceived and portrayed, it’s mystifying to consider we saw them moments ago as Wal and Isba Whalley.

Meg’s “moment of temporary importance” is beautifully executed by Lehmann (aided in no small way by “the girls”), but it’s only the beginning of the brilliance, as she flips convincingly between the coquettish naïve child and the worldly-wise Daise. Smith as man-child Lummy, and then the “indifferently buttoned” Ossie, is excellent; his intonation as the former, superbly altering the dialogue rhythm. Enjoyable additions to the script include Wal’s car reversing (Blackwell) and the potholes in the road on the way to the dump (tutti), which add comedy to White’s whimsy.

The scenes almost present as independent vignettes, but for Zephyr Quartet’s unifying touch. Their music adds empathy and rich texture, beautifully helping to put White’s poetry in motion. Kumbayah and Abide With Me” compliment the funeral procession scene and mourning, and Zephyr’s own compositions with recurring themes propel the action, uniting the production like so much of Georgina Last’s knitting.

Zephyr’s silence through the courtship dance between Meg and Lummie (Lehmann and Smith) is as brilliant a theatrical decision as the acting. The musical absence so perfectly exposes the vulnerability of the soon-to-be lovers; we are uncomfortable, alone only with them and their awkwardness. This perfectly reminds of the freedom with which Daise lived and speaks cleverly to the central theme of not fully appreciating something until it is not there.

Intimate, delightful and moving, The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is a fascinating exposition of White’s mighty love story set in a quirky world where opposites attract.

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