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Past the Shallows

Past the Shallows
Writer: Julian Larnach
Director: Ben Winspear
The Rebel Theatre, Pier 2/3
October 12 – November 9, 2022

Adapted from Favel Parrett’s award-winning novel by Julian Larnach, and sensitively directed by Ben Winspear, Past the Shallows is a haunting blend of lyricism and violence. While celebrating the wild beauty of the remote south coast of Tasmania and the bond between brothers, it also profoundly questions the way family secrets can warp the lives of the young.

The sea in all its moods is projected upon a minimalist background linking the world of ten-year-old Harry and fifteen-year-old Miles, their mother killed in a car crash, with the uncontrollable mood swings of their embittered father. The oldest brother, Tom, has left the family home, driven out by the father’s violent physical abuse, and Miles is left to look after Harry and protect him – if he can – from their father’s unpredictable bouts of brutality.

The brothers have as little control over their dad’s moods – worsened by bouts of drinking with a sadistic mate – as they do over the sea. They have little control over their lives for as the school holidays begin Miles must work with his father, an abalone diver, on the family boat and Harry is left to fill in his day.

In an unusual choice by the director, the characters of the brothers, their father and mate Jeff, are interchangeable and offer many versions of masculinity. Three actors of considerable versatility – Meg Clarke, Ryan Hodson and Griffin McLaughlin – play all parts interchangeably, and as they have excellent command of their voice and expression as they change roles, their identity is clear. Clarke is particularly good, capturing the joy of young Harry in his show bags and an endearing dependence upon Miles, and at other times she speaks as narrator with saddened authority.

Hodson garners understanding as Tom, guilty at leaving both home and place but knowing it is time to make his own life. It is suggested that surfing – a different relationship with the sea – has given Tom confidence in his own agency and that it may help Miles to follow “his own line”. McLaughlin is fully and poignantly convincing as the anxious Miles, fearful of his dad and deep-sea diving alike, but responsibly and tenderly trying to nurture his young brother.

In another unusual choice made by the director, Burnt Bill, a pivotal character in the narrative is not present at all. Harry’s interaction with his pup, Rusty – whose innocent and friendly gambolling is well-evoked by Hodson – suggests the warmth and acceptance he finds in

his friendship with socially isolated Burnt Bill. His father’s wrath when he discovers the friendship combined with Tom’s discovery of a shark’s tooth and car seat in his grandpa’s memorabilia, prompt suspicions that a past secret is about to erupt.

The dead mother’s presence, strongly felt throughout the play, is connected to the invisible but present neighbour Burnt Bill, who knows the truth about the car collision in which she died. Different and confusing accounts are given of the accident and Harry’s early childhood memories of it are discouraged. Who, we ask, did all this secrecy protect, and how many lives were warped by it, how many lives destroyed?

Others besides the family, have aided the father in keeping his secret, imprisoned as he is by a negative pride in his masculinity. But in the end, despite the tragedy or because of it, the sons might find a path “to somewhere warm”, “to somewhere new”. At the close, the audience is hushed – acknowledging the deep emotion touched by this compelling production.




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