The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell

What is it?

A play written by Reg Cribb and directed by Lucy Freeman that showed up until yesterday at Fortyfive Downstairs. Its 3 performers, John Wood, Samuel Johnson and Marcella Russo, all shine in a production that is eerily familiar, quintessentially Australian and ultimately more than a little disturbing.

Wood plays Daniel Gartrell, a celebrated bush poet who has retired to the suburbs, a recluse who has neither ventured outside nor put pen to paper for 15 years. His only contact with the world is his daughter, Sarah (played by Russo), whose compunction to care for the broken keeps her doting on him but similarly isolated and lonely. Johnson is Craig Castevich, a young actor who barges into their lives after landing his first big role in a feature film – he is to play Gartrell and has arranged to spend 2 weeks with him to understand the man behind the mystery.

What did we think?

Not being regular theatre-goers, we discovered a peculiarity to the theatre experience not encountered in either cinema or literature. Sitting somewhere between a film and a novel, a play furnishes its audience with less visual information than the former but more than the latter. We are encouraged to use our imagination, but are directed in the way we do so. As such, the suspension of disbelief, the immersion of ourselves into the narrative of the play, took a little longer than we had anticipated.

Once in however, we were richly rewarded. The play paints a picture of the Australian bush in tones of contradicting duality, managing simultaneously to romanticise and criticise it. The bush of Gartrell’s childhood was raw and beautiful as well as ugly and racist, all traits that somehow find their way into the cramped confines of the suburbia of his twilight years. The set, composed almost entirely of differently-shaped and coloured doors, suggests that each of the characters are searching for something but are trapped in an extended moment of indecision.

Wood, Johnson and Russo have a clear chemistry that translates well on stage. While the roles of each character appear well defined and knowable – bitter old man, lonely daughter and innocent actor – the story leads us far away from these archetypes into disquieting terrain. None finish off where they started, leaving the audience to ponder the powerful currents that run beneath the surface of everyday life and threaten at any moment to throw all we know into irrevocable disarray. The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell starts slowly but builds to an unrestrained crescendo that shocked us and set our thoughts reeling.

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