Last night I saw the stage play, The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell – produced by Straightjacket Productions – at Melbourne art space 45 Downstairs. The play is written by Western Australian playwright Reg Cribb, and directed by Lucy Freeman. It stars John Wood (of Blue Heelers fame), Sam Johnson (Secret Life of Us, Rush) and Marcella Russo (Neighbours).
The play opens with acclaimed Australian bush poet Daniel Gartrell (John Wood) sitting in an armchair, ‘thinking oblique thoughts’ when Craig Castevich (Sam Johnson) stops by. The house is dark, temporarily cut off from power, and Castevich trips over a vase. Gartrell’s fiery temper is revealed in this early stage of the play, when he scolds Castevich for tripping over the vase his ex wife gave to him. Daniel Gartrell reveals his nudity too – just as the power is restored. His nudity was not what Castevich – or the audience – expected.
Castevich is a recently graduated actor, his most successful work to date has been playing a naked terrorist and a squash player (he became really good at squash) in a short films. Gartrell’s life story is being made into a feature film, and Castevich is spending two weeks with Gartrell to learn about him in preparation for playing him as a young man. He is fresh and extremely enthusiastic and forward in researching Gartrell, as he believes this feature film may be his big break.
He soon realises Gartrell’s history will not be easy to learn as Gartrell is a very private and isolated man, often leading Castevich astray. Perhaps the fact that Gartrell is still alive makes it harder still for Castevich to become his character. Sarah Gartrell (Marcella Russo), Daniel Gartrell’s daughter, stops by with some groceries and she reveals some truths about her father. Sarah is also isolated, perhaps a symptom of being the sole carer of her father. She just wants someone other than her father to love her.
As Gartrell and Castevich spend more time together, it becomes apparent they both share common demons. The idea of it being easier to become a character being than living with the reality of your own life is also raised. And perhaps when an actor becomes a character, their own life is burdened with the character’s flaws. Issues of mental illness loneliness and isolation, Indigenous Australia, and the generation gap are also explored in depth. The play also showed the effects on a writer when their craft slowly becomes obsolete.
The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is a convincing performance, both funny and confronting in parts. It is very Australian. The set is amazing – a construction of old doors and drawers, and old couches. Gum trees are scattered around the sides, and these are haunting lit. And Marcella Russo wore a stunning dress.
I felt immersed in the play. It was so different compared to TV and film – really intimate. I have been a fan of Sam Johnson since The Secret Life of Us, and John Wood is a legend of Australian TV, so it was great to see them on stage. Sam not only acts in the play but is a co-founder of Straightjacket Productions.
The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is playing at 45 Downstairs until 7 June.
You can view some hilarious videos from Straightjacket Productions on YouTube.
On a side note – Sam Johnson is so lovely, taking the time to talk to me after the play. I gave him a card and the CD featuring the video of the Rush premiere. He asked me about my work on Channel 31 and what disability I have, which we spoke at some length for. He also asked me for a hug and what my full name is. Nicest. Actor. Ever.