Originally staged in 1975, John Romeril’s The Floating World is something of a lost Australian classic.Originally staged in 1975, John Romeril’s The Floating World is something of a lost Australian classic. The story tells the tale of Les and Irene, an everyday Australian couple on a cruise to Japan. Les himself, however, is a former WWII prisoner of war, and as he and his wife get closer to their destination, his sanity begins to unravel.

“The thing that drew me to the play is the urgency of the content,” says director Sam Strong, who is staging a new production of the play at Griffin Theatre Company. “The play is an epic work, and bringing something of such scope to an intimate space like this is a challenge, but compressing it has the effect of intensifying the work. The other exciting thing, or course, is that The Floating World contains such a wide variety of styles, from monologues and very naturalistic dialogue through to music and stand-up comedy. Then you have the multiple realities on stage as Les’s mind begins to deteriorate. All of those things are incredibly exciting to realise on stage.”

The Floating World is a product of the 1970s, when Australia still regarded Asia, and especially Japan, with a degree of suspicion – though present day attitudes are somewhat different, Strong maintains that the play has something to say about the national character. “On the one hand, the play is of its time,” he says, “it deals with the experiences of a former prisoner of war, at a time when Australia’s relationship to Japan was starting to change, thanks to more widespread tourism, and an embrace of Japanese products. In a broader sense, though, it’s not just a story about Australia’s relationship with Japan – it’s a story about Australian xenophobia. In staging a story like that, we’re posing questions of how much or how little has changed since the 1970s. In light of the current discussions around refugees, I think that question still holds some urgency.”

Approaching the show from a contemporary perspective, Strong says his production of The Floating World will be more natural and less caricatured than original 1970s stagings. “The play follows the breakdown and disintegration of Les’s mind,” he says, “but one thing that may not have been emphasised as much in the original productions it that it’s also very much his wife Irene’s story, and it’s a story about the falling apart of a marriage. Romeril drew the relationship between Les and Irene beautifully, and we’re lucky in that we have two such very talented actors as Peter Kowitz and Valerie Bader playing the roles. They’ve worked together before and have a real chemistry so we started at a pretty advanced state, and we’re able to achieve the maximum emotional effect from their disintegrating relationship.”

The playwright himself, John Romeril, has had quite a degree of involvement with the current production of The Floating World – he has come to rehearsals, and even consulted with Strong on a few edits to the script. “What’s great is John’s spirit,” Strong says. “He’s a very ambitious writer, he’s a very political writer, and he’s a true person of the theatre. His spirit, literally and metaphorically, have been great gifts for the ensemble. One more point on having John in the room, one of the great things about the Australian theatre industry is that you can have some genuine cross-generational exchange going on. The people who wrote our classic plays are still around in many cases, and it’s great, because it allows people of different generations to come together and share ideas in the one room.”

BY ALASDAIR DUNCANgriffintheatre.com.au

The Floating World is showing at Griffin Theatre Company until November 16.

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