Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World
Reviewed by James Karas
The Floating World is a play by Australian playwright John Romeril and is now playing at the 105-seat SBW Stables Theatre in Sydney. Among other things, the play provides a dazzling, bravura performance by Peter Kowitz as the main character, Les Harding.
Harding and his wife Irene (Valerie Bader) are on the Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom Cruise bound for Japan. He spent part of World War II in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and the cruise is a trip to the horrible past far more than a fun-filled holiday of a lifetime. Harding faces his tortured past as he goes through sea-sickness, drunkenness, rage, fits of jealousy and finally into madness. Each phase of the trip, especially the mad scene, requires Kowitz to perform at extreme emotional levels and maintain the same pitch for extraordinary lengths. A performance to marvel at by Kowitz.
The play moves forward as the cruise progresses towards Japan and returns to its port of departure and back into the past as remembered, imagined and relived by Harding.
The cruise has a Comic (Justin Smith) who is supposed to entertain the passengers. The passengers are supposed to have fun and that part of the play is a caricature of cruises so well done that it is enough to turn you off even the idea of getting on board such a ship forever. Smith is very good as the overenthusiastic entertainer who is so awful that he does not manage to get a single laugh.
Herbert Robinson (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a retired officer from the Royal Navy. He is a refined gentleman who spent the war in the Mediterranean and can know nothing about conditions in a prisoner-of-war camp. Llewellyn-Jones gives a fine performance as the refined Robinson who acts as a perfect foil for Harding.
The play moves quickly and seamlessly between past and present as the almost always drunk Harding loses his grip on reality. He starts imagining members of the crew as being people from his past. He recalls conditions in the camp and slowly goes mad.
The other strand of the plot is his unhappy relationship with his wife who tries to control his drinking and his misbehavior. Bader presents the classic image of the long-suffering spouse who tries to connect with other people on the ship.
Some of the characters speak at breakneck speeds and perhaps because of the speed, the accents or the many unfamiliar references, the play was not always easy to follow. The author provides three pages of glossary in the printed version of the script to help the audience but it was of marginal assistance.
The play is performed on a raised platform in the small theatre. There are very few props but there is extensive use of lighting changes including use of strobe lights to create the impression of the emotional and mental turmoil that Harding is experiencing.
Sam Strong directs this outstanding production of an amazing play. I wish I could have followed the machine-gun delivery of dialogue peppered with unfamiliar references. But nothing can take away from Kowitz’s bravura performance._____
The Floating World by John Romeril continues until November 16, 2013 at SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod St. King’s Cross, Sydney, Australia. www.griffintheatre.com.au/