Free ‘Panic’

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Tony Turner in the role of McGafferty.

TO veteran theatre director, dialect coach, actor and erstwhile academic Tony Turner there is a sense of irony in his heading up the cast in the first university production to hit the main stage of the ANU Arts Centre since drama studies were abandoned a couple of years ago in favour of “cultural inquiry”.

Added to that, the director of “Panic”, the 1935 verse play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Archibald McLeish, is Andrew Holmes, a PhD student who was a product of the hands-on drama teaching Turner personified when he was head of the drama program.

Not just that. According to Turner, people are now calling the centre’s theatre the “Papermoon Theatre”, a reference to Papermoon Productions, the company servicing the drama students of the ANU that was dropped on the recommendation of one of the many committees in Canberra that rejoice in killing arts projects rather than sustaining them.

No longer. In a doctoral research project, Holmes is staging “Panic” then, in October, “Fall of the City” to investigate the nature of McLeish’s verse drama.

Because it’s research, it won’t cost audiences a cent to attend, but you’ll be asked to fill out feedback forms and invited to attend weekly Q&A sessions.

Verse drama? Oh no, you may say. Another former ANU academic, Geoff Borny, has had audiences rolling in the aisles with his comic Moliere productions in rhyming couplets, but verse drama doesn’t immediately spring to mind as theatrical entertainment.

Turner disagrees. T.S. Eliot and Federico García Lorca (on whom Holmes wrote his honours thesis) triumphed in the form. And “Panic” serendipitously hits upon what Holmes calls an “eerily prescient” theme – global financial crisis.

The main character, originally played by Orson Welles, is imperilled banking magnate McGafferty, who struggles with the effects of the 1929 crash and the Great Depression, eventually succumbing. It’s a tragedy after all.

Sure,  McLeish’s language is locked into  a certain era in the US, but Turner has been working on the dialects with a first-rate cast that includes another theatre veteran, Christa de Jager.

Much of the free verse actually reminds him of Eliot  and Lorca, though he admits that the complex transposition of words makes it harder to learn than Shakespeare and the imagery in a 70-year-old play requires careful treatment to make it contemporary.

“We’re getting there,” Turner says. “This is a rare opportunity to see a play you probably won’t see again in your lifetime”. And it’s free.

“Panic”, ANU Arts Centre, 8pm, August 18-20 and 25-27.

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