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The Westlands

Weatherboard Theatre Co and True West Theatre, present THE WESTLANDS by Dale Turner in the Rafferty’s Theatre at Riverside, Parramatta.

THE WESTLANDS by Dale Turner opens with a community response to a bushfire alert in the Westlands. It was a sobering beginning to this performance in Parramatta, considering it was last Thursday, the 17th of October, and New South Wales, and the greater spread around the City of Sydney was dealing with one of the worst fire alarms in its history. We could see the smoke plume from the Mountain fires, trailing across the sky outside, through the windows. We could smell the burn, and sense the intensity of the heat in that tumultuous colour of the sky. Weatherboard Theatre Company, the co-producer of this work (with True West from Riverside), has grown in the Blue Mountain area, and members of this company were trusting that their homes, family and neighbours were safe as they told us this story. The experience of the play was intensified with this ‘acted’ reality so palpably true outside.

Mr Turner has written a play in verse. It seems to be, happily, inspired by the form of that great verse play UNDER MILK WOOD by Dylan Thomas. It is a happy connection, as it works, most of the time, so well, in the hands of Mr Turner, and, so, is an agreeable and pliably appropriate and fluid take. We begin at the beginning , with an indigenous, Trent (Rhimi Dean) reading the ground, the dust, for meaning. (He takes the role of Second Voice, from the Thomas play model). The Stranger (Shane Porteous) appears: “We came and saw with our own eyes”, representing the white appropriation of this country, and, like the First Voice in the Thomas play, guides us, with comment, witty and otherwise, through introducing characters and interludes into their enacted histories of the possession of this Westland.

We meet and become involved with a compendium of characters in various story telling places in their histories, representing the recent multi cultural and aspirational class differences of the Westlands. Lucy Miller, James Lugton, Tiriel Mora, Craig Menaud, Patrick Trumper and Olga Assagby create portraits of these people in deft strokes of observation and empathy. The depth of some of the acting is moving indeed, shifting from satirical comment to emotional realism with ease, and as required. Ms Miller and Mr Lugton, create wonderfully recognisable and fragile domestic ‘survivors’; Craig Menaud in several roles, plays true and clearly, especially as Azadar, in pursuit of a ‘dream’; while Mr Mora is particularly astute and canny in his many choices in an array of men, political or just plainly, simply, a bloke – a carpenter. On the whole the skills, from some, are, sometimes a little variable in the playing, but the passion and belief in the work is all equal, and allows one to maintain one’s interest, belief and gathering immersement – enthusiasm.

Director, Michael Pigott, once again (e.g. the recent, THE TWELFTH DAWN) finds a sure path to discovering the ways and means to keep this many scene play afloat and coherent, having a steady hand on the pulse of the writing, both for character and their development, and the rhythmical tempos of the music of the scenes. There is some real staging inventiveness, that within the tiny budget for this show, is admirably, magically successful – a boat journey, for instance, echoes of Ariane Mnouchkine!

I was, frankly, very moved by this production of this work. I believe it was more than sentimental nostalgia, for me. (I am, after self examination, sure , of that.) True, the production is sometimes rough, and it is, very occasionally, not as secure in some areas as in others, but it was always winning. I felt an identity with this world, a keen sense of watching a new Australian play that had resonance and insights about who I am, where I am, and an echo of recognised values, virtues and vices of myself and my fellow audience, that I have, perhaps, unconsciously, craved for in recent years when going to the Australian theatre, and not found. John Doyle’s THE PIG IRON PEOPLE, presented by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008, attempted to touch those places of unique recognition, in the Australian psyche, human heart and solar plexus, but could not resist obvious dramatic caricature and too broad a comic brush (go for a laugh and sentimentality when a toughness of approach, a resistance to that oft reached for easy good-humoured ‘bloke -iness’ might have been more powerful – a usual Aussie fault). PIG IRON PEOPLE didn’t seem to trust the intelligent sentiments of the material’s origins and inspiration. Mr Turner is very sure of his talismans and how to touch them for effect.

THE WESTLANDS is very different in literary form, but it had the thrill, for me, of what I remember having, when watching for the first time an iconic Australian work like THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY (Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis), or, some early David Williamson, or seeing AWAY (Michael Gow) or A HARD GOD (Peter Kenna) for the first time. The thrill of hearing and seeing an authentic Australian identity, that I recognised as a part of me, on the stage. THE WESTLANDS revived for me the power of experiencing that healthy power of reflected kinship and identity in the the theatre. I had a few tears of excitement on my face at the end!

I hope the STC, Belvoir or Griffin send a visitor to estimate the promise of this new work. I recommend THE WESTLANDS by Dale Turner to you all.

I saw the following night a new work by Jane Bodie, HINTERLAND, at NIDA, commissioned by NIDA, directed by Julian Meyrick. HINTERLAND, is a play dealing with an  important ‘world’ story, crafted in a daring and, for Ms Bodie, a newly expansive manner. It is of some note, and I wondered how is it that Ms Bodie is not been launched, more consistently, on our main stages? Let us hope that one of the ‘gatekeepers’ of our Sydney repertoire feels urged to produce a version of HINTERLAND. I could not help but agree with Mr Meyrick in his sentiments in the program notes to HINTERLAND, and, I am paraphrasing, that we are in a dolefully worrying time to be able to estimate the few Australian playwrights and writing that are vying to be produced on our stages. I feel as if I am living through a kind of “Dark Age” of the original Australian playwright voice. Both, THE WESTLANDS and HINTERLAND give a kind of faith and hope to a possible dawning renaissance. (I am struck, amusedly, that these two plays are in the West land (Parramatta – Blue Mountains) and of the hinter land  (of the profession – NIDA.)

N.B. THE WESTLANDS was part of a joint art initiative that also included an opening of a painting exhibition by David Robert Hill (also, from the Blue Mountains – The Art work of Mr Hill is represented in the blog illustration above) opened by the State Shadow Minister of the Arts, Nathan Rees, for this community. Robert Love, Director of the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, announced that the New South Wales government had, on this very day, informed he and his organisation, that the funding for the TRUE WEST program, under whose auspices THE WESTLANDS was able to be presented, was cut – no longer available. As a result, it seems that the TRUE WEST initiative, this vigorous and important opportunity for the artists of the West Lands to be seen, will now, perforce, become defunct. Mr Love said that of the 300 odd million dollars assigned for the Arts in New South Wales, less than 1% is received (yes, less than 1%), in the West – the demographic heart of Sydney. It seems to me, that there is much positive public rhetoric from government sources concerning the Arts and the West, but when examined, very little active support is forthcoming. All loud, blustering promises and no palpable action. The way of the world, I guess. All loud show but no follow through except a sheen of a Marketing ploy by a supposedly sympathetic government and/or political party. A tragedy in the making, for the future of our nation, I reckon.

Recently, I smiled at the observation of Keith Gallasch in the monthly Arts Review magazine, REAL TIME (September issue) when he concluded a look at several classic productions, that had had the Australian ‘veneer’ given to them (THE MAIDS [STC] and PERSONA (Belvoir), being two of them), expressing, that that work (those plays and productions) would do, while we waited for the New Australian plays to arrive. Waiting for the new Australian works to arrive – mmmm?.

Note well what has followed: at the moment at the STC and Belvoir are two more classic texts, reduced, re-written by two ‘auteurs’ of the local theatre scene, two of Shakespeare’s plays ROMEO AND JULIET and HAMLET; at least, we have THE FLOATING WORLD at Griffin, even if it is a1974 Australian voice present in the city. Do these ‘auteurs’/directors find any inspiration in the development of new Australian authorial voices, and feel the impulse, the need to produce it, other than their own manipulations of other historical, classic writers’ work? Just how hard do the ‘gatekeepers’ reach for the new Australian voice? How much risk do the companies really make? I guess Andrew Upton, an Australian playwright (RIFLEMAN, his last original text) is content in adapting, “auteering” two classics, CHILDREN OF THE SUN – Maxim Gorky (a commission he wrote for the National Theatre of Great Britain this year; and Rostand’s, CYRANO DE BERGERAC – this is the third production of that play in my living memory of the STC!! – than writing a new work of his own? How about a work, with a role for Cate Blanchett, that might tempt her back to her old stamping ground? Ms Blanchett has not played an Australian character on our stages for some time – a decade, or more, is it? Meanwhile at Belvoir, I wonder, is it enough to have the personal, biographical ruminations, mutterings of a young writer and her adventures with a psychic in the search for love, given pride of place on their and the Malthouse stage (STORIES I WANT TO TELL YOU IN PERSON)? If you have no other interest except in your self and your friends, maybe? And no other play presents itself of any challenging worth., as I have ben told by some in positions of ‘power’, I suppose. In the mean time it is ok for the other and new Australian writers’ voices to be smothered in development stages, before even a birth, not seen by the audiences – a kind of ‘abortion’ of the Australian playwriting culture? Isn’t it?

The expectation of the new Australian play was a thrill to see and hear, in the ’70’s and ’80’s at the old NIDA/Jane St. Seasons; then at Nimrod and later, Belvoir; at the Sydney Theatre Company. And not only were the successes thrilling but the disasters as well – what a fall was there, and how exciting the debate was, over, for instance, the aspiration and crash of the Paris Theatre season, Louis Nowra’s VISIONS (1979) and Dorothy Hewett’s PANDORA’S CROSS (1979), under the direction of the ‘hot shots’ of the time, Jim Sharman and Rex Cramphorn, or, the debates around the new play works of Patrick White, or, god help us, Jim McNeil – Australia’s very own Genet type figure – our own ‘poet’ in a prison.

Dream, dream, dream.
Dream, dream, dream.” (to a tune by the Everly Brothers, I think)

Go see THE WESTLANDS out at Parramatta.

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