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Australian Realness

10 Sep 2019

Australian Realness Image

Review by Meg Hill

To say a show is about class today could mean almost anything.

Often it means the contemporary non-existence of class, in various ways. That class lines are increasingly blurred, or that society now consists of different classes to what it previously did, are common directives.

It’s this that could make Zoey Dawson’s play Australian Realness the unpopular cynic of the theatre world, a lone voice preaching that the world is still irreconcilably divided – if the audience sees beyond the entertaining genre blend and façade of irony.

The play, which ran last month at the Malthouse Theatre, is based on the experience of one middle-class family over Christmas, as adult children visit home and discover their parents are short on money.

It’s the volatile experience of the middle layer – drawn down into economic crisis without losing their class status.

Melbourne icons are part of the early settings and references, the ones that make us feel like the city is a community with a shared history – Piedemontes, Edinburgh Gardens, Helen Garner.

But the feeling is set up to be shattered, as it becomes apparent the city is not in fact unaffected by class divides but is literally torn apart by them.

Its working-class characters are blue collar brickies and wharfies. They talk about the union and are locked out of work sites.

They blame Keating for a lack of industrial power, set out to restore it and end up undertaking an insurrection that – for one middle-class character in particular – is a descent into madness.

The working class are portrayed in a variety of overdone stereotypes, but this is part of the realness. The subject is the middle class, and the workers are portrayed through their eyes.

And particularly through the eyes of the daughter, a photographer and bleeding-heart liberal, who is set up initially as the most politically correct character.

She’s pregnant via sperm donor with her “wog” wharfie girlfriend – the only real character in the play and the realistic representation of the modern working class.

It’s through the daughter’s perspective that the audience watch the insurrection, and the insurrection is her worst nightmare – her family melt into the bogan characters, her girlfriend leaves her, her baby is stolen.

The daughter cares about the disadvantaged only when they’re helpless victims, and particularly if they pose well for her photographs.

When they take control of their lives and then society, she’ll do anything to go back to the status quo.

The play’s complexity escalates as layers are added and the daughter’s middle-class life is literally dismantled. It ends with a display of wilful ignorance – given truth, the middle class would rather play “pretend”.

She finds it impossible to accept that her layer is not the driving force of the play (or history) and to keep pace with a world quickly overtaking her.

It’s this insight that’s needed to appreciate the work, but it may be obscured by thick perspective. Without an understanding of liberal hypocrisy and capital C class, an audience might just see a lot of stereotypes and abrupt transitions.

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