Black Swan State Theatre Company’s terrific new production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll joins other recent revivals such as those by Belvoir Street Theatre (2011) and State Theatre Company of South Australia (2015) in showing that Ray Lawler’s 1955 classic has lost none of its power to entertain and provoke.
Some of the themes explored in the Doll – set in Melbourne in 1953–54 and first seen in Perth in 1956, a year after its Melbourne première – have, if anything, assumed greater significance for West Australian audiences in light of the state’s current reliance on FIFO workers. But so much else has changed – appropriate for a play which is all about change. The ease of staying in touch has radically altered the nature of long-distance relationships. Indeed, the nature of relationships full stop has radically altered. To what extent Australian audiences also recognise themselves in what was seen as a ground-breaking work of social realism depicting, for the first time in this country, the real lives of real working class Australians, is debatable.
On a superficial level, The Doll is now a period piece, and on that level director Adam Mitchell treats it as such. However, that doesn’t equate with nostalgia, and while Bruce McKinven’s costumes and set design firmly places the play in 1950s Australia, the ‘lightbox’ configuration of the set, together with Trent Suidgeest’s efficiently expressive lighting and Ben Collins’ psychologically astute sound design is thoroughly contemporary. The resulting dissonance between these elements and the 1950s kitsch décor, replete with previous summers’ sixteen Kewpie dolls scattered across the back wall like a disorganised skein of the once ubiquitous flying wall ducks, is one of this production’s chief joys.