If all I knew of Will Drummond, the protagonist of Once in Royal David’s City, was Brendan Cowell’s tense and jittery 2014 performance, I would be unaware of the tender beauty that lies at the heart of this play. This time around the lead is played by Francisco Lopez, who expertly navigates the emotional path that Drummond faces in the story. Letting go of people that you love is hard, even when you are prepared for imminent death. In this case there is no time to prepare, which throws Drummond into a tailspin. Playwright Michael Gow’s Once in a Royal David’s City is autobiographical, which makes this play all the more heart-rending.
This is a relatively recent play from Gow, who came to prominence with Away in 1986. Once in a Royal David’s City is a rich, multi-layered story with a narrative from Will Drummond, middle-aged gay theatre director who faces losing his mother to cancer only six weeks after his father’s death. This double-barrelled loss provides the impetus for Drummond taking on a teaching position that he was initially reluctant to commit to.
The play is a tribute to the writer’s parents as much as it is to Bertold Brecht whose approach to theatre must have been a tremendous influence on Gow. The bare-boned set, which has been stripped back to reveal the slightly ragged edges is a nod to Brecht’s distancing effect, which seeks to engage the audience more critically than previous theatre had. Adopting this more critical perspective was essential for the audience to recognise social injustice, as a committed Marxist Brecht hoped to enlighten his audiences, much as Drummond later strives to do.
This narrative is enacted in several scenes and includes Will’s parents played by Alice Livingstone and Martin Portus. Elsewhere the action is carried out by a Greek-Style chorus of sorts who play support in several different scenes: passengers at the airport, a choir and many also play individual roles. Sandra Campbell and Martin Portus both give stand-out performances in several roles and the entire ensemble was strong. Alice Livingstone gives a fantastic ‘life imitating art’ performance – Livingstone was sick on the day the play opened, hopefully she is not burying herself too deeply in the role.
Strong Marxist overtones filled the theatre and cue laughter from the audience, especially from the older socialists in the crowd. Ultimately the Bolshevik in Drummond is galvanised to action by the play’s end, stirred to teach the students who give him a new lease on life. Sensitive direction by Patrick Howard, the production aesthetic and the touching performance by Franciso Lopez unite to provide a unique and evocative show that will melt even the most cynical heart.
Once in Royal David’s City is on until 13 April, for more information and tickets see: https://newtheatre.org.au/once-in-royal-davids-city/
Featuring: Alana Birtles, Ben Brighton, Amy Victoria Brooks, Sandra Campbell, Nathalie Fenwick, Nicholas Foustellis, Angela Johnston, Alice Livingstone,
Aimee Lodge, Francisco Lopez, Martin Portus, Bryden White-Tuohey.
Above image by Bob Seary