Remember Ronald Ryan. This phrase is a powerful conceit, and that’s not just because of the convenient alliteration. Those three words aren’t just there to provide the absolute shortest summary of a play possible, but to make a promise: that after two emotional acts, you will remember Ronald Ryan, the last man to be hanged in Australia.
Queen’s College Music and Drama Society kept this promise.
By far the boldest choice made by the production was to have four different actors playing Ryan, alternating with each scene. It can’t go unspoken that this was somewhat distracting, and in the early scenes even confusing, but this decision did have clear benefits. Simply put, there were four great lead performances for the price of one, and each actor brought their own strong character traits to Ryan. Alex Sheen’s energetic charisma, Emily Wilson’s emotionally grounded monologues, Maddie Ossovani’s witty retorts, and Nick Schinckel’s dramatic grief and sorrow provided an interesting, engaging and overall likeable character in every scene. If one actor gave a performance to rival these four, it was Elsie Shaw as Peter Walker, an inmate that befriends Ryan early in the play. She had so much fun with the role, delivering each line with a dry, sarcastic tone that helped ground both Walker and Ryan. The rest of the cast provided solid performances, particularly Alisha Maclean as Dorothy, Ryan’s wife.
Whilst the cast played their parts well on their own, it was the interactions between them that really showcased the talents of the actors. The purposefully awkward yet hilarious exchange between Dorothy’s parents and Ryan, the mateship between Ryan and Walker, the heartfelt conversations between Ryan and the prison staff when finally facing the gallows; these shared moments got the comedy, drama and despair so very right.
The first act of the play was more comedic, while the second focused on the tragedy, with many more tears than laughs. This tonal shift might have given a disjointed feeling to the production, if not for the ability of the actors to carry through both styles so naturally, and really hit the emotional beats that made up the show’s complex psychological journey.
Outside of the cast, the lighting was the most impressive part of the show, and lighting designer Jess Herne did well in using so little to contribute so much. The generally dim lights complemented the acting during intense emotional scenes, whether purposefully shadowing much of the stage to give a sense of claustrophobia or barely illuminating a character to give them an almost ghostly presence. Director Raja Noureddine must also be praised for getting actors to make good use of space on stage.
There were, of course, some weaker elements. Some of the songs came very abruptly, and didn’t so much set the scene as interrupt it. The dialogue and accents were enough to take the audience into the 1960’s, without having to throw in the Rolling Stones, which stopped as snappishly as it started. After the scene of Ryan’s hanging, perhaps the most powerful and haunting scene in the play, a segment of stock footage of the real-world event was shown. While it aimed to address the protests surrounding the execution, the film took the viewer out of the experience of the show, and it would have been stronger had the hanging been immediately followed by the final scene, which provided a satisfying conclusion in a minimalistic play.
Overall, despite some production decisions that were rather jarring, Remember Ronald Ryan provides a powerful, moving experience. Supported by great actors, direction and lighting, Queen’s College Music and Drama Society told a strong story that successfully pays tribute to Ronald Ryan, making sure that he will be remembered long after the curtain has closed.
Queen’s College Music and Drama Society’s production Remember Ronald Ryan ran from September 7th-10th in Union Theatre.