It’s a case of art imitates life with the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s 2017 season opener Once in Royal David’s City.
The play is a collaboration between Black Swan and Queensland Theatre and is Sam Strong’s directorial debut for both companies.
Michael Gow’s most recent work, Once in Royal David’s City, is the story of Brecht-obsessed theatre director Will Drummond (Jason Klarwein). He returns home to Byron Bay to spend time with his mother who unexpectedly becomes seriously ill during his visit.
“Jason Klarwein is a great director in his own right, so as a theatre director I’m directing a theatre director, playing a theatre director which is actually more fun than it sounds,” Strong laughs.
It is the first season Strong has programmed for Queensland Theatre as artistic director, a position Gow also held.
“Once in Royal David’s City is a play that I’ve wanted to direct ever since I first read it or a very early draft of it in 2013,” Strong explains.
“It’s a story that I responded to very personally and feel very passionately about telling, on the other hand bringing Michael (Gow) back to the company fits very much with what we want to be doing at Queensland Theatre.
“First we want to be bringing great Queensland artists who have left back to the company — Michael of course is not just an ex-artistic director but one of the most cherished playwrights from around the country — and the programming of the play also speaks to our passion for new Australian stories.”
Coincidentally this is also the first year for Clare Watson as artistic director at Black Swan. Although they have not worked together in their current roles, Watson and Strong’s paths have crossed professionally in the past.
“We both came out of the Melbourne independent theatre scene, we’ve know each other for a while so looking forward to future collaborations,” Strong says.
This is the first time Strong has worked with Gow but he says members of the cast have a history with the playwright and director.
“Jason (Klarwein) has had a long professional association and friendship with Michael and there are two other actors from Brisbane in Penny Everingham and Kaye Stevenson who … have both had a very long association with Michael,” he explains.
“It’s wonderful to bring best friends together and bring old friends together as well as new friends for this show.
“One of the beautiful things about working on this play — which is where some of the Perth actors and West Australian actors come in — is that I get to work with a genuinely cross-generational cast.
“I think it’s rare that you have a cast that stretches from a great young WAAPA grad like Adam Sollis who is in his early 20s through to some very senior actors like Penny and Kaye.”
The play’s themes of loss and searching for meaning in life brought the cast together early in rehearsals when they shared stories of the mortality of their loved ones.
“Most cast and actors generally don’t have difficulty sharing things that are personal or emotional, it’s sort of the nature of the job, but I think with this one in particular, this show, there was a recognition that we are dealing with quite precious material,” he says.
“We were dealing with experiences that everyone has, specifically that is saying goodbye to a loved one.”
Strong says Gow’s play takes the audience into some very emotionally challenging places, is moving and thought-provoking but also has an enormous amount of fun along the way.
“It gives an audience the full spectrum of experiences they can have in a theatre — it can potentially move them to tears, it makes them laugh out loud and gives them something to think about at the end of the evening,” he explains.
Strong describes Gow as a ferociously, politically engaged writer and says he manages to make political points and political statements but embed them completely within the story.
“Characters have strong opinions and some characters are very angry or some characters are very articulate but you always feel that they’re a very natural part of the drama,” he says.
“There is no kind of element of preaching and it is true that Michael’s work can combine art and politics in a way that few writers can.”
For Strong, the advantage of putting on the work of an Australian playwright is that he is around to attend rehearsals and Gow has rewritten parts of the script for the show that premiered in Sydney in 2014.
“It’s continually being refined, it’s continually improving, continually evolving into the best piece of theatre that it can be,” he says.
Once in Royal David’s City is at Heath Ledger Theatre from Saturday-April 9.