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Photo by Victor Frankovski


Arts Centre Melbourne and Performing Lines Australia with the Sydney Festival 2020, presents ANTHEM, by writers: Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. 15-19 January.

ANTHEM, a work commissioned as part of the Melbourne Festival in 2019, represents the reunion of the writers of the 1998 play WHO’S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS? to examine and tell us through story invention of the present state of the nation: Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas are the word smiths, whilst Irine Vela provides the musical scoring.

Getting together, they write in the program note:

We sat around the table and thrashed out our ideas. We argued and yelled and laughed and when we got sick of the sound of our own voices we ventured out into the city. It was winter in Melbourne. It was bleak. The world seemed tough. We caught trains out to the end of the lines and into the city again and brought the stories of what we’d seen back into the room. Slowly we began to build a picture of a city, a place, a country, a time of fractured identities, racial tensions and economic hardship.

Our play is set largely in the public domain, particularly on trains (the set by Marg Horwell is made of a sets of stairs descending to a station level, where platforms are moved by members of the cast to form carriages with rows of seats for passengers to sit), where our conflicting identities around class and race and gender and sexuality clash and compete for ascendancy, or simply for space and the right to be seen. What became apparent is that we we are not one nation brought together by a single anthem. Our country is not “fair’ in any meaning of the word as our Anthem proclaims. We are riven by difference and disagreement and the arguments around our national identity are acrimonious and dangerous. Our political leadership has failed to provide a vision that could unify us and instead, seems only to entrench our differences. The nation’s powder keg waiting to blow. “The Fire Next Time,” says a character in the play quoting James Baldwin.

As in the earlier work, class remains our shared and urgent theme. …

The writers’ work is split up and interwoven through the dramaturgical structure of the play.

Andrew Bovell has written a poetic chorus of discontent for the voices of the actors, it, interspersed throughout the structure.

Christos Tsiolkas bookends the evening with a conversation between a successful young Australian couple – strangers (Thuso Lekwape) and Eryn Jean Norvill) – stuck on a stalled Euro Tunnel train engaged in First World conversation of self satisfaction.

Melissa Reeves introduces us to the crazy relationship between two 7/11 workers (Sahil Saluja and Eryn Jean Norvill) who indulge on a fanciful ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ adventure on the trains in response to the wage-theft they have experienced in their employment.

Patricia Cornelius introduces us to a house cleaner (Amanda Ma) meeting up, serendipitously, on a train with her ex-employer (Maude Davey) who has fallen on hard times and stalks her ex-employee in search of companionship, oblivious of her once privileged behaviour, and her present delusional sense of entitlement. Also, there is an indigenous woman (Carly Sheppard) haranguing with barely repressed rage the train passengers, demanding the return of her country in the traditional confronting argot of the Cornelius’ underprivileged world.

Whilst an indigenous woman (Ruci Kaisila) sings anthems that include ‘Amazing Grace’, coming to the edge of the stage, as the final statement of the evening, shaking her tin cup and demanding of us that we “PAY UP. PAY UP.”

Other characters, street roughs and intimidators from marginal life styles are created by Reef Ireland, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Osmah Sami, Eva Seymour, Jenny M. Thomas, Dan Witton. 14 performers in all including two musicians playing live with a double bass and violin. Yes, there is a classical music sound as the soundtrack to this working class angst – cute, eh?

We are regaled with some of the contemporary economic failures/ills of the community – the have-nots flailing out at the haves – boiling up, stoked by the anger of the underprivileged underclasses into enacting social responses of extreme intimidation on the public transport system – I use it, do you? – generating a sense of fear and hopelessness.

The appearance of a gigantic Australian flag drapped across the back of the stage being pulled down and spat upon was, I guess, a kind of climax of ironic symbolism to this ‘show’ entitled: ANTHEM.

The content has been earnestly chosen. The acting, from all, passionately missionary in its zeal to reveal critically (some of) the problems of our times. The Direction/staging by Susie Dee is pragmatically efficient.

The tone of the performance style is self-consciously theatrical with a tendency to parody the emotions rather than to really engage in them. This company were really ‘ladies and gentlemen of the theatre’ rather than the real people that the writers had found on their wintery Melbourne trains in the research stage of the play.

To instance: the train terrorism by two hapless angry youths, corralling passengers and pointing a gun at various targets were directed, by Ms Dee, to react with a ‘mock horror’ vocal and physical choral response. In contrast, I thought of, remembered, the long televised gun-siege in the Lindt Chocolate Cafe (2014) in the centre of the CBD Sydney where I watched people respond truthfully to the possibility of death with guns pointed at them – certainly no ‘mock horror’ response. Here, in ANTHEM, I mused, we observe a pulling of the reality to avoid, I supposed, a real recalled trauma in the audience – letting us off the hook of dealing with truthfully the fact of unvarnished terror. I recalled the film NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994) and the visceral experience that those two youths wrought (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), crazed in response to their circumstances with weapons that took them to sexual excitement, much like, Ms Reeves tells us, is what her couple indulge in resultedly. NATURAL BORN KILLERS is a classic film from Oliver Stone that was culturally controversial – it is, relatively, forgotten but not because it was badly made but because it predicted the coming times, savagedly – it will survive as a classic of cinema making because of its courageous raw truth telling. Similarly, Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), I guess as the ‘Droogs’ maraud their environs with terrifying intent.

I found the production ‘soft’. (see my similar response to Neil Armfield’s production of THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE). Making the content palatable rather than challenging.

Further instance: the singing of the Australian Anthems from the Indigenous performer, Ruci Kaisila, displaying a powerful sound. But, in the experience in the moment, I could not discern whether Ms Kaisila was more interested in making – demonstrating – that beautiful sound she has been gifted with, at the expense of communicating the lyrics and delivering a political point. AMAZING GRACE – the obvious/cliche manipulative choice of song (my toes curled) – was sung beautifully but not with any real dramaturgical punch! Was Ms Kaisila and Ms Dee’s objective to sing those anthems beautifully, or deliver a political coup? Where was the Director, to clarify this? (It was curious to note that Ms Kaisila never spoke any text or expressed her dilemmas as a contemporary indigenous member of the Australian community, on those stations and trains.)

There is nothing so difficult to execute on stage then to have a company of actors recite a Chorus responsibility, solo and in unison, as Mr Bovell has challenged his actors to do – it requires a forensic organisation of the sounds of each of the actors to create harmonic choral clarity to deliver the text with assured intention – it is a time consuming intricacy. It is like learning a musical score – no easy feat, especially as the actors are writing their own score with tonal and tempo choices and then having to deliver the spoken words with accurate precision of intention. It did not seem to me that this company had invested enough time or had the instinctive skill to have this succeed as a tool for dramaturgical effect. Mr Bovell’s work was relatively neglected and had little to any impact.

Now, I know that I am a relative nay-sayer in my response to ANTHEM, for as I predicted to my companion at the show it would be praised with high regard.

“Undoubtedly (and unfortunately) ANTHEM will be hailed by the critics and the comatose audience as: ‘thrilling, daring, and oh, so timely – pat our backs for our courage stuff’.”

“Aren’t these writers, actors, Director cutting edge soothsayers?”

“Amazing aren’t they? Brave, too.”

“Melbourne is so consciously political, isn’t it?”

“Thank goodness we are?” they say. “You are so lucky that we can bring it to Sydney audiences for your Festival season.”

“Yes, we are and thank you so much. Bravo, Bravo.”

A standing ovation was given.

“Enjoy our Anthem to reveal the zeitgeist of our times, to inspire you to find a new and true direction.”

“Phew. Someone is saying it, and just in time, I reckon. I feel so good. Thank you.” Enough I’ve done?

“Hmm. aren’t there other issues: Corporate and Institutional corruption, Climate Change, failure of leadership, that may be contributing to the present zeitgeist of despair, demonstrated on our public transport systems, as well?”

“Oh, yeah. But no-one on those trains spoke of it. So, what does one do?”

Well, maybe when these writers 20 years ago had nothing but their disconcerted youth made WHO’S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS?, to register a protest of the pain of their political position in their lived-in environment – it hit a target of the shock of the naked truth of/for the times. But, I wondered, now that these same writers are the rewarded, successful and esteemed (famous) counter-culture ‘saints’, are they indulging their new monied privilege, still believing that they are the rightful and righteous spokespersons for the contemporary underclasses, which, socially, they have no longer much ‘authentic’ connection to? Kind of pretend socialists looking down from their Ivory Towers of literary ‘wealth’ telling not truths, but fabulous Fictions? And I mean fabulous as in Fables.

There is historical precedent of course for this change of politics as one matures. I always felt betrayed when my Socialist heroes in the theatre: Joan Littlewood and Edward Bond, just two, who let their beliefs burn out in the comfort of the trappings of wealth in later life. It is such a corrupter – just read ANIMAL FARM, which the author George Orwell sub-titled A Fairy Story.

I, must confess, I just became ‘angry’ with these writers and performing artists, and worse with the Australian audience,I was with. I stayed sitting in my seat at the interval staggered with what I had been given in the theatre from these artists. Once again I watched the opportunity of an important political statement softened for our comfortable bourgeoise – for who else could afford the price of the tickets? Not anyone on those trains. It was a shallow cousin to the effect of the impact of the original WHO’S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS? by these writers and this creative company,

A huge, distressing disappointment.

1 replies to “Anthem”

  1. You did better than I – I left at the (first) interval. Couldn't stand it for all the reasons you describe so well.

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