Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. Queensland Theatre Company (QTC) and Black Swan Theatre Company co-production, at Playhouse QPAC, 22nd April to 14th May, 2017.


Michael Gow’s Once in Royal David’s City centers on the Christmas death of Will Drummonds’ recently-widowed mother Jeannie. Less than 2 months after the lingering death of his father, Will (Jason Klarwein) arranges a Christmas holiday with his Mum; a chance for an idyllic rest, and some beachside relaxation. But instead the planned break rapidly turns into a bedside vigil.

During the short period from diagnosis to death, we reflect with Will on key scenes from his life, and join with him as he grapples with how to ‘deal’ with the death of his mother such a short time after she is widowed. We see and experience characters through Will, and also through their connection with Jeannie. For example, the seemingly uncaring Doctor (Adam Booth) is humanised when he relates an earlier conversation with Jeannie.  We also begin to question why we might expect the dying to embark on a deathbed process of unburdening close-held secrets; as Jeannie’s close friend Molly (Kaye Stevenson) suggests, it is for the living to say what they need to, and the dying to say only what they wish.

We also learn much about perspective, misunderstandings, and misreading of people and situations. Perspectives are a central part of the production, particularly when mother and son separately recall a Bondi beach visit, and temporary misplacing of the 6-year old Will. Jeannie recalls ‘losing’ him, but Will’s recollections are of ‘finding’ himself (or at least recalling enjoying his time with the hunky lifeguards). Equally, misunderstanding or misreading of characters and situations is a recurrent theme. Does the preacher (Wally, played by Steve Turner) have any faith at all? Is the hospital visitor (Gail, played by Toni Scanlon) really a nurse or professional carer?

This sounds like it is all serious stuff but—as in real life—even in death, there is usually humour. There are certainly some funny bits in this production, which is beautifully directed by QTC Artistic Director Sam Strong. This is particularly the case in the ensemble work of the cast: the Christmas eve switching between the ‘Dr Google’ prognosis and treatment options and the red-dressed TV star in the TV special (beautifully played by Emma Jackson), Steve Turner “on wheels,” and the poignant humour in Adam Sollis’ skateboarder's description of his fractured family Christmas.

Pictured: A scene from  Once in Royal David's City . Picture credit: Philip Gostelow.

Pictured: A scene from Once in Royal David's City. Picture credit: Philip Gostelow.

The QPAC Playhouse is a battleground that has claimed the heads of many set-designers, so hats off to Stephen Curtis, who used the space with economy and style. In particular, I loved the creation of the airport arrivals area, and of the utilitarian hospital room, at the back of the cavernous stage. That’s not to say I didn’t have a couple of minor quibbles with the setting. I have to admit I found the frequent “swipe left, swipe right” movements of the curtain a little irritating, and was a increasingly concernedat the ominous forward progress of the deathbed (had someone forgotten to put the brake on?). But I was in a minority in our group on both niggles.

Be warned, however. Will is a middle-aged theatre director, and fanatical about Brecht (so much so thathe is invited to teach at a private school—to the delight of his mother, who clearly sees teaching as a higher calling than theatre direction). Audiences are increasingly used to warnings such as those in the QTC program: about coarse language (limited), adult themes (death), and even of smoke and haze (limited smoke). But perhaps we have to introduce a new category, as the QTC promotion doesn’t warn you of a high Brecht content. If you have time before you go, skim Michael Beh’s program notes, which highlight the fusion of “elements of Brechtian theatre with contemporary realism” (and provide a few reminders about Brecht’s theatrical style that may be helpful in your own post-theatre reviews).

Chatting about the play with my fellow theatregoer, I was asked if I felt the play was autobiographical. I understand that Michael Gow was drawing on the loss of his own parents when he wrote this play, but I think the autobiographical question was more as a result of the compelling performance by Jason Klarwein. Despite the Brechtian alienation, for many of us Klarwein is William Drummond (who may in turn be Michael Gow). Klarwein’s superb performance alone is worth the price of entry.  From the opening welcome (“thanks’ for coming... I'm in an airport”) it is perhaps not surprising that we found ourselves questioning if the play was autobiographical.

Gow ends the work by posing the question “why is it so?”  We can of course wonder what the “it” is that is: that we expect certain behaviours or experiences at the time of death, that our plays have to be heart-rending or wildly amusing, that….?

Reflecting on Once in Royal David’s City, I’d also add my own question; when is a theatre not a theatre? Answer: when it’s a lecture theatre. If you prefer your lectures to be just that (at School, college or University)… and want to go to the theatre for entertainment or to relive life experiences and connection… then Once in Royal David’s City is not for you. But if you want to be provoked, to come out of a theatre thinking about what the playwright and Director were ‘trying to say’—and/or just want to see a powerhouse of a performance by Jason Klarwein—then go. And then tell me why you think it’s so.

Once in Royal David’s City is in Brisbane for just over three weeks (22nd April to 14th May, 2017). Tickets $55-$86 (plus $6.95 fee per transaction). 95 minutes, no interval.

 Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended Once in Royal David’s City at Brisbane’s QPAC Playhouse, on Tuesday, 2nd May 2017, 6:30pm