The Golden Age, by Louis Nowra | Directed by Kip Williams

Sydney Theatre Company (www.sydneytheatre.com.au) | Wharf 1, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 20 February

Louis Nowra’s epic Australian play, The Golden Age, is based on a supposedly true story that would sit comfortably in the realms of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

A couple of well-to-do young adventurers, Francis (Brandon McClelland) from Melbourne and Peter (Remy Hii) from Hobart, have challenged the wilds of south-western Tasmania in the late 1930s when they chance on a small isolated tribe who are descended from convicts and colonists originally attracted into the otherwise uninhabited landscape in search of gold in the 1850s.

The group of six — matriarch Ayre (Sarah Peirse), Angel (Zondzi Okenyo), Stef (Liam Nunan), Mac (Anthony Taufa), Melorne (Robert Menzies) and Betsheb (Rarriwuy Hick) — are, at least superficially, a fairly motley lot.

Those that can verbalise do so in a mix of “Irish rhythms, English bawdy verse and early convict slang”. It has seemingly taken only three generations for inbreeding to do its work, providing feebleness and frailty aplenty. Stef is so physically and mentally underdeveloped that he spends most of his time on all fours and expresses himself in a series of grunts and screams.

Only Betsheb seems to have her wits completely about her.

It’s in high contrast to Peter and his Hobart group, led by his father William Archer (Robert Menzies) and mother Elizabeth (Ursula Yovich), performing Greek drama on their lawn, and becomes even more palpably so when the group agrees to head back to civilisation.

But exactly who are the civilised? That’s certainly one of the questions posed by playwright Nowra and brought incredibly sharply into focus by director Kip Williams, as World War II breaks out and they portray a world gone mad and only able to solve its issues through the most barbaric means available.

And is the ‘lost tribe’ really confined to an asylum because of the chance that their physical and mental disintegration will give credibility to Hitler’s philosophies? Or is it because their leaders believe society simply can’t cope with the outsiders and they need to be removed them from the mainstream? Certainly another fascinating question to ponder.

But there’s also a sweet, touching love story at the heart of The Golden Age, as Francis and Betsheb fall for each other. Nowra integrates plenty of twists in this part of the tale and it would certainly require a spoiler alert to talk too much about it, especially the ending.

Suffice to say both actors are completely convincing in their portrayals, as indeed is the cast as a whole.

But special mention must go for Liam Nunan, who has totally perfected his portrayal of the physically defective Stef, right down to maintaining angles of hand position and jerky yet confident crawling movements across the stage.

Designer David Fleischer initially seems to have done not much at all, building just a mound of dirt on one side of the stage. But when that mound is subject to his vision — and to the skills of lighting designer Damien Cooper and sound designer Max Lyandvert — it and its surrounds become a swish Hobart yard, a lush patch of Tasmanian wilderness, the stifling desolation of an asylum ward, and the terrifying spectre of Berlin in total free fall under Allied bombing.

The Golden Age is a modern dramatic classic, penned by a genuinely great Australian writer and performed here by one of the country’s finest theatre groups. It isn’t an easy play to watch but it is totally absorbing and a most important work.

Do try to see it. Thumbs up.

Sarah Peirse. All images by Lisa Tomasetti.

Ursula Yovich.

Rarriwuy Hick and Brandon McClelland.