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Stage fright

10 Jul 2019

Stage fright Image

By Meg Hill

It’s fitting that Declan Greene’s Wake in Fright adaptation is running in the Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre. Samuel Beckett would presumably approve of Greene’s minimisation. His adaptation is performed by only one actor – Zahra Newman.

Other Beckett-like qualities were already present in the novel and film: the barren, apocalyptic natural landscape, the repetitious dialogue and the elemental sense of being stuck in a hamster wheel.

But Greene’s one-person innovation isn’t a character minimisation. If anything, Greene has added a character to the story.

Zahra Newman switches between speaking as narrator, as each character and as herself. She tells the audience, breaking the fourth wall at the beginning of the performance, how often one of Wake in Fright’s repetitious pieces of dialogue – “where are you from?”– appears in her own life.

“I’m Australian,” she quips back. She’s not white and speaks with a slight accent. This, in itself, escalates Wake in Fright’s already abrasive commentary on white masculine Australian culture.

Main character John Grant is an English teacher from Sydney serving out a slavish post in Tiboonda (a town with approximately three buildings) to pay off his student debt.

On his way to Sydney for the holidays he plans to spend one night in Bundanyabba – “the Yabba” – where his flight leaves for Sydney. In the mind-numbing heat, he goes to the pub for one cold beer.

But the local hospitality never allows just one beer. During a deliriously boozy, torrid night Grant is introduced to the Yabba by the menacing local cop with a sunburnt nose. He loses all his money trying to win his student debt balance playing two-ups.

What ensues is a nightmare as Grant is pushed and pulled around the Yabba, alternately succumbing to it and struggling with it, and ultimately going mad.

It’s hard to describe Wake in Fright’s shiver-inducing effect, comprised partly of the filthy, sweating locals; the omnipresent violence that leaks into the primitive and fragmented sexual scenes, or the gaping hole where the Indigenous population should be.

Beer is constantly pouring, and the pretence of Aussie hospitality used systematically as a method to attack outsiders.

When Newman begins her performance, she takes off the mascot suit she’d been stumbling around in as the audience filed through and introduces herself. Soon she begins to talk about Broken Hill.

The author Kenneth Cook largely based Boondanyabba on his time in Broken Hill. Director Ted Kotcheff’s screen adaption was filmed there.

It makes its way into the stage adaption as Newman tells us that lead poisoning is epidemic in Broken Hill – particularly among children and especially the Indigenous population.

Whole sheets of lead dust are blown over the town from the open cut mines that surround it and employ most of the population.

The mascot from the beginning is Lead Ted Junior – a real Government solution to lead poisoning, he teaches children to wash their hands after playing in lead-contaminated dirt.

It’s an unexpected start used to prompt the audience, from the very beginning, to connect the work’s themes to modern Australia.

Newman personally hands earplugs to any audience members who respond to her cue: if you have sensitive ears, you’ll need them. The use of sound is intrinsic to this adaptation, you can hear Grant’s, or just as likely the Yabba’s, heart beat during pivotal moments like the two-up game.

Projections are similarly important. “TAILS” flashes up on the screen while Grant plays two-ups, until he flips a “HEADS” and loses it all. The adaptation of the famous “roo-shooting” scene draws heavily on lights and projections too.

Adaptations are a balancing act and almost impossible with a cult classic, but this one somehow strikes parity. The changes made succeed in drawing the original themes out into the 21st century.

One legend about the film adaption (there are many) is a story from one of its first screenings. When it ended, a man apparently stood up and shouted: “that’s not us!”.

At the end of Newman’s performance there was only clapping. The last thought provoked is something about dissonance: if we’ve come to accept that it is us, how can it still be true?

Wake in Fright is running at the Malthouse until July 14. malthousetheatre.com.au

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