Screenshot 2024 02 14 at 1 06 55 pm

‘The Graduate’ // Gold Coast Little Theatre

‘The Graduate’ was subversive.

A horizontal line intersects with a jutting diagonal line on stage, irreparably changing its expected course. A lost, lonely college graduate meets an equally adrift married woman and the course of his life is changed forever.

Social norms and taboos are uprooted in Gold Coast Little Theatre’s ‘The Graduate’ production, directed by Michelle Watkins. This is the first show of the 2024 season for the Southport-based community production house. The piece is an adaptation of the 1967 film directed by Mike Nichols, starring Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock. The stage play was written by Terry Johnson and debuted in 2000.

The story follows Benjamin, a recent college graduate who is disillusioned and uncertain about his future. He becomes romantically involved with an older woman named Mrs. Robinson, but their affair becomes complicated when he falls in love with her daughter, Elaine. The film explores themes of alienation, rebellion against societal expectations, and the search for identity amidst societal upheaval in the 1960s. It is renowned for its groundbreaking direction, innovative cinematography, and an iconic soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel.

The piece could fall into absurdity or become a play-by-play of the film in the wrong hands, but direction by Watkins manages to nail down the dry, satirical, but ultimately deeply heartfelt tone. With a contemporary lens combined with reverence for the source material, Watkins breathes new life into the story and crafted it into a potent commentary on self-determination. It is the story of women relearning to celebrate their sexuality in a preventative society and of two social rebels (in their own ways) finding each other amidst the noise of older generations casting their judgments.

The sound design included original music by Simon & Garfunkel and dreamy, folksy instrumentals reminiscent of 60s youth music movements. Paying aural homage to the original film using such ubiquitous songs brought forth an element of nostalgia. Lighting design by Wes Bluff was most often utilised to manifest space on the abstracted set. It also effectively mimicked cinematic technique using elongated fade-outs and sharp cuts to harken back to the original form this story takes.

The set design by Watkins and Lawrie Esmond invoked the coldness of the world our protagonist occupies. Made up of background flats with horizontal and diagonal beams representing power dynamics in the work, and a revolve with a bed that does not leave the stage. The choice to abstract the constantly changing settings within ‘The Graduate’ created a breeding ground for the play’s thematic conversations to shine. The costume design could have delved further into the iconic aesthetics of the 1960s but was particularly strong in costuming for Elaine and Mrs Robinson. Together, with Mrs Robinson in leopard print, black and gold, and Elaine in earth-toned gowns they stood in stark visual contrast to one another.

Stuart Morgan plays Benjamin Brockman and gives a solid performance as the protagonist. He skillfully lights the character’s apathy into a small fire of passion as he fights to live by his own rules. His formidable match is met with Pamela Payne as Mrs Robinson, who has all the gravitas an actress needs to play such a role. Payne’s performance is reminiscent of a Jessica Lange grand dame, a powerful and unapologetic woman who wields her sexuality like a weapon. Jessica White as Elaine rounds out the strange love triangle with a grounded and deeply felt performance. She is believable and earnest as the young Berkley student trying to break free of her mother’s overbearing expectations of who she should be. A standout performance from the well-oiled ensemble of actors who played numerous other characters in this farcical world was Tracy Caroll as Olive, Benjamin’s mother. She came into every scene on the verge of pure hysteria, and every time she broke into a fit of worry about her son was just as hilarious as the last.

In the immortal words of Simon & Garfunkel, “Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson”. I congratulate GCLT for programming a work that depicts older women as dynamic, sexual beings without the Hayes code-era trope of downfall at the story’s end. Fans of the original movie and newcomers alike can find something of themselves in this story of human nature.

‘The Graduate’ performs until February 24, 2024 at GCLT. For more information visit their website.

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