Note that this review reflects the performance on the show’s second preview night.
It’s fascinating to imagine what Walt Disney might think of the empire that has been built in his name.
How proud would he be, knowing that his chain of theme parks were synonymous with happiness the world over? How amazed would he be that his production company owns so many of today’s most beloved studios?
And what about the bad? Would he have approved of the copyright claims that kept the Mickey Mouse brand safe, while restricting the kind of creative freedoms that made his early films possible? Would he have accepted press censorship and strong-arming city councils as the cost of realising his vision?
We cannot know for sure, but if the Walt of Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is anything like the real deal, it’s not hard to envision him lapping up the power with lordly glee.
Making its Australian premiere at the MC Showroom as part of the PROVOCARÉ Festival, the show is a fascinating hybrid between play and script read. Rather than letting a discussion about Walt’s legacy unfold through traditional structure, the style allows him to retain the authority he fiercely desires.
It’s a desire that drives Walt towards his ultimate goal: immortality. The myth surrounding Walt’s decision to be cryogenically frozen following his death in hopes of resurrection is as well known as his films, but never has it felt so believable as in Hnath’s script.
Unfortunately, much of the story’s potency is lost in this revision from artistic director and scenographer Tobias Manderson-Galvin, and the fault mostly lies with the cast.
It’s a family affair, with Tobias playing a Walt who feels less like an egomaniacal tyrant than a cocksure loser. He’s funny, and captures the poetry of Hnath’s script well, but it’s an odd direction.
To his left sit mother Lenore Manderson, who plays Walt’s daughter, Diane Miller, and father Patrick Galvin as son-in-law Ron. They don’t have many scenes, but each performs capably.
It’s sister Kerith Manderson-Galvin who Walt interacts with most. Kerith play his older brother, business partner, and closest confidant, Roy. It’s Roy who helps Walt work out the technical details for their infamous nature documentary that saw the crew throw lemmings off a cliff, but it’s also Roy who strives to keep him grounded.
As such, Kerith plays an important role, but the performance lacks the strength required. It’s evident that Kerith’s a capable actress, and yet seems to struggle to get into character.
This is most clear in the opening scenes, as Walt and Roy have a verbal sparring match about a change in the company’s direction. Hnath’s script is written as if their dialogue overlaps, but the direction calls for each to say their lines uninterrupted. Still, it requires particular emphasis, but Tobias and Kerith seem more focused on reading the lines than performing them, making for an awkward experience.
When the beat does flow (such as in one wicked moment when Walt pridefully announces that Hitler got what was coming to him because he wasn’t a fan of Mickey Mouse) The Death of Walt Disney delivers on its potential, but as it stands, the show is hard to recommend. If the concept intrigues, you may find something to enjoy, but with so much else on display in the closing weekend of PROVOCARÉ, it’s best to look elsewhere.