John Romeril’s play was first performed in 1974. Like many plays of the New Wave era, there’s a sense you’re about to witness lots of the Ocker larrikin with lashings of sexist and racist behaviour from ignorant, fearful and often uneducated Australian men.
‘The Floating World’ fulfils all of the above but there’s something more to it that helps lift it out of an exploration of male conditioning. What Romeril’s play also delivers is the damaged man from the atrocities of World War II who doesn’t know how to reconcile the suffering of war and forgiveness of the perpetrators in a world where war was more romance than reality and no-one spoke of its torment. Of course, you put our main protagonist, Les (Peter Kowitz) on a cruise to Japan and watch him unravel as his war wounds resurface and sanity becomes tenuous. It gives the play much more bite than just a historical examination of Australia at the time in which it was written.
Stylistically this play also delves into interesting ground. Early on our stage comic (Justin Smith) talks about the ‘death of vaudeville’ and throughout ‘The Floating World’, we see it in practice. The play’s classic vaudeville beginnings become increasingly darker until we find ourselves in Les’ surreal world completely.
Director Sam Strong has cleverly played with the interactive audience elements of 'The Floating World' and puts us front and centre of the awkward comedy and tragedy of this show. I was seated next to several RSL veterans and it was interesting watching their responses to the material that made me think Romeril’s ‘stereotype’ of the Ocker male wasn’t much of a stereotype at all…
The ‘live’ aspect of the play is enhanced by Justin Stewart Cotta’s foley effects at the side of the stage accompanied with overall compositions by Kelly Ryall meant that this play always felt ‘active’ which then makes the juxtaposition of Les’ solo breakdown a powerful statement of what lies beneath the smoke and mirrors. Stephen Curtis’ design of the flashy cruise ship with the exposed fluorescent lights of the rostra made us feel acutely aware of the isolated floating world of Les’ despair in a new world order. Verity Hampton’s lights further explored this notion.
There are many layers to this play and it is unfortunate I went on the first preview night when things weren’t quite in control yet. Dialogue was pushed too fast and too loud so the ideas of the play and the dimensions of character, especially with Howitz, were often lost. This also meant that sometimes the coherence of the story fell away as the rhythm and pace lacked control. Howitz’ big monologue at the end was hit and miss with some really powerful moments and then waves of reciting lines. He just hadn’t nailed it at that time.
But it’s a good ensemble cast and the highlight for me was definitely Valerie Bader as Irene, whose understated skills in comedy and excellent timing hit the mark every time.
I predict this play will go from strength to strength and it’s a pity I didn’t see it later in the run as I think the control issues will (if they haven’t already) be sorted and the play will be a real winner. I was surprised by what I feel is a play that still has such relevance, not only as a piece that promotes a generational understanding but also represents global acts of violence committed and the subsequent silence expected of the victims even today. Take advantage of seeing ‘The Floating World’ and watch a play that manipulates form and style and has plenty of interesting ideas to keep you engaged.