“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.”
So wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in 1947 as he pleaded with his dying father to maintain a zeal for life in the face of death. In a broader sense, the poem celebrates the vivacity and joy of human life despite its fleetingness.
In the Sydney Theatre Company’s glittering performance of Patricia Cornelius’ play, Do Not Go Gentle, the play’s opening scene sees octogenarian opera singer Marilyn Richardson in black ball gown and diamonds, singing ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s opera, Norma. In that opera, this aria is a moment of stillness and calm before an oncoming war. In this play, she is surrounded by a stunning landscape of ice and snow (complete with polystyrene icebergs and glaciers), within which tramp five dogged Arctic explorers.
Leading this quintet is Scott (Phillip Quast), who imagines himself to be the explorer Robert Scott, leading his party of four men – Evans, Wilson, Oates and Bowers – on their ill-fated journey to the South Pole in 1912, from which none returned.
In fact, they are a group of senior citizens – three men and two women – living out their final days in an old folks’ home – each seeking a palatable path towards imminent death.
As their arduous ‘journey’ proceeds, outspoken Evans (Peter Carroll) recalls the rage he felt for bosses and the class wars he battled, proclaiming himself a “mad Trotskyite” who fought for “justice and humanity”.
Oates (John Gaden) encounters some sort of creature in the ‘snow’, which he recognises as something that belonged to him (although he can’t remember what). He nevertheless asks for its forgiveness.
Bowers (Brigid Zengeni) recalls earlier times with a man she did not know but whom, it turns out, was her husband. Younger than the others, it becomes clear she is in the home due to early onset dementia.
Wilson (Vanessa Downing) is outwardly the most cheerful of the five, however her unfulfilled marriage and life as a mother is slowly unveiled and she turns to Scott seeking a closeness she has never experienced before it is too late.
As the expedition continues, Oates recognises the ‘creature’ as his son, a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after his father labelled him a “weak prick” when he couldn’t cope with civilian life. In this icy landscape, they reconcile and Oates follows his son to his demise (“I’m going outside and may be some time”).
Evans has meanwhile succumbed to death, having confessed he eventually sacrificed his high-minded principles for “the party”.
Also interacting periodically with the explorers is Maria of the opening scene (played majestically by renowned soprano Richardson), a desperate Serbian immigrant struggling within the foreign landscape of this frost-bitten aged care world. “I don’t know this place,” she insists. “There has been a dreadful mistake.”
In the final scene, definitively recognising in each other what they have been unconsciously seeking, Wilson and Scott retreat gloriously to bed and for a brief, critical moment in time, lie replete in each other’s arms.
“We did something remarkable,” Scott sighs.
Directed by Paige Rattray, Do Not Go Gentle is a masterful piece of theatre – ambitious, moving and thought-provoking.
Do Not Go Gentle
Sydney Theatre Company
Until 17 June, 2023