On opening night, in the presence of John Romeril himself we were privileged to see a major production of this searing, landmark and still very controversial play. Under the stirring , inspired direction of Sam Strong Griffin have got it more than just right.
When it was first performed in 1974, the play spoke to a generation and their concerns about World War 11 and the Vietnam War . Les spoke vocalising the then rather uncertain somewhat conflicted feelings of many Australians about cultural, political and economic engagement with Asia , especially Japan .But now, 40 years on ,Les is a catalyst in a new way. PTSD is now acknowledged as is survivor guilt and acceptance that the future of Australia is definitely Asian based.
We the audience are fellow cruise takers on the 1974 ‘Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom Cruise’ and we follow Les’ disintegration. Is it all in Les’ imagination ? From the very beginning we get a feeling of being inside Les’ mind and its turmoil.’The Floating World’ is not just the world of the cruise ship but also the ‘other ‘ , the Japanese world . Les can’t get over the horrors he experienced in World War 11. It could also at least partly refer to the balance of Les’ mind. How does Les cope with surviving ? As the ship drifts across the Equator towards Yokohama , Les is assaulted by heavily hidden memories: his friends starved in Changhi , worked to death on the Burma Railway, or brutally murdered in Hellfire Pass . He drinks incessantly to try to block them but the ghosts keep returning accusing him of disloyalty.( Yet “ Les Hardy never scabbed on his mates”) . They continue to stoke his repressed anger and hurt as past and present merge into an uneasy ,violent explosion.
Stephen Curtis’ set design is clinical white , just a raised platform on the Griffin centre stage with some movable silver reflective curtains and is combined with terrific lighting effects by Verity Hampton.
Valerie Bader is superb as the rather ordinary , loving, quietly dignified housewife Irene ( which ironically means peace – is that significant ? ) who has to deal with the embarrassing , odd behaviour of her husband Les , his eventual descent into madness and the disintegration of their marriage .
Tony Llewellyn-Jones is terrific as the dashing retired Vice Admiral Herbert Robinson with a David Niven moustache who becomes the Harding’s friend on board. Gallant and elegant he survived war horrors too but in a different field of battle to Les and important distinctions are drawn between the Officers and Others. How did his experiences differ ? There are also excellent performances from bald ,bearded Justin Stewart Cotta ( as Harry the one-man band aboard ship and some of the dead men in Les’s dreams) and Shingo Usami, who chameleon like changes from ultra-polite Malay ship’s steward to the chilling Japanese soldiers of Les’s horrors and unbearable nightmares . Justin Smith as the energetic Smile Week ship board comic with vulgar bad taste jokes is also terrific .
But the show is Les Hardings and Peter Kowitz gives an amazing , searing performance. He is an ordinary solider to whom appalling things happened. The play does not try to glamourise Les, nor apologise for his behaviour to those around him (which is often appalling) or his rabid xenophobia. He is not a heroic character by any means but Kowitz brings an incredibly subtle, nuanced performance so we feel sympathetic towards him yet also repelled . Eventually he cannot tell past from present delusions from reality and discovers that he no longer really knows or likes his wife . Kowitz’s performance of the long, wordy climactic monologue in Act2, a cascade of haunted ,free-associating dream-speak meandering rambles is blisteringly Lear like , very disturbing yet extremely powerful to observe. A magnificent , shattering bravura performance .
A brilliant, chilling and disturbing performance of this extremely relevant and powerful play .If at all possible don’t miss it.
The Floating World by John Romeril runs at the Griffin Theatre until 16 November. Running time 2 & ½ hours (approx) including one interval