On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s 1957 book, was recently staged by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) in a two-act adaptation by playwright Tommy Murphy (Significant Others, Gwen in Purgatory, Holding the Man). The show was directed by Kip Williams, the STC’s artistic director.

Tai Hara, Contessa Treffone, Ben O’Toole and Michelle Lim Davidson in Sydney Theatre Company’s On the Beach, 2023. (Photo: Sydney Theatre Company: Daniel Boud)

Shute’s story is set in the Australian city of Melbourne in 1963—in other words, a few years into the future—following a devastating nuclear war in the northern hemisphere, and what are the final months of human civilisation. All human life has been wiped out in North America, Europe, China and the Soviet Union, and a deadly radiation cloud is moving southward towards Australia.

City residents, along with the captain and crew of the visiting American nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, are preparing for their inevitable deaths with only state-sanctioned suicide pills to ease their final days.

Principal characters in the STC’s production are Australian senior naval officer Peter Holmes (Ben O’Toole) and his wife Mary (Michelle Lim Davidson) who have a baby girl; Moira Davidson (Contessa Treffone), who falls in love with US submarine captain Dwight Towers (Tai Hara); and John Osborne (Matthew Backer), an Australian scientist.

Shute’s novel was an immediate financial success in 1957, selling over a hundred thousand copies in the first weeks after its publication, and quickly becoming an international best seller. Twelve years after the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, millions of people around the world were deeply concerned about the possibility of nuclear war.

Nevil Shute

US director Stanley Kramer acquired the rights and the movie, shot in Melbourne and featuring some of Hollywood’s greats—Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins—was released in 1959. “It was a fictional scenario,” Gardner said of the film, “but my God, everyone in the cast and crew knew it [nuclear war] could happen… I was proud of being part of this film.”

Other film and television productions have since been made. These include a made-for-television version in 2000 with Armand Assante, Rachel Ward, and Bryan Brown, followed by a full-cast audio dramatisation in 2008. In 2013, Lawrence Johnston directed Fallout, a documentary about the production of the Kramer’s film.

The STC’s staging of On the Beach—the first ever theatrical production—is timely and politically significant. Its four-week season at the 800-seat Roslyn Packer Theatre in central Sydney was well attended, indicating that Shute’s frightening story still resonates, not just with those who read it in the late 1950s, but for a new generation.

In fact, the ongoing and increasingly public speculation by government and military officials about the possible use of nuclear weapons in the US-led NATO war against Russia in the Ukraine, make Shute’s novel even more relevant than when it was released. Likewise, the Albanese government’s deepening involvement in US-led preparations for war against China, with multi-billion dollar purchases of nuclear submarines and other deadly weaponry, and the hosting of major military exercises in northern Australia, is encountering growing popular opposition.

Underpinning Shute’s book is his determination to raise awareness about the possibility and dangers of nuclear war. This is effectively presented in the opening pastiche of the STC production that gives a real sense of the impending danger that drives the author’s narrative.

As audiences arrive and are seated, actors dressed in 1950s beach wear, gradually populate the stage in lackadaisical fashion. As they look upstage towards an imaginary sea, suggested on stage with the use of a huge white lightweight horizontal curtain. Subtle lighting changes occur as a gentle breeze develops, causing the giant curtain to flow, gently at first, then rising to a billow.

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