Melbourne Workers' Theatre: how to connect?

Jonathan Marshall

Director Julian Meyrick’s program notes explain that the 4 stories in Melbourne Workers’ Theatre’s Fever constitute “possible” or “future…worlds”, reflecting contemporary politics “as in a magnifying mirror.” Political allegory is an underdeveloped form within Australian arts. Its theatrical master is John Romeril–our Swift–whose work is distinguished by a precision of metaphor; the bizarre mendacity both writers depict springs directly from specific political milestones.

Fever’s authors by contrast throw their net so wide that the plays often have no intelligible connection to political touchstones. Christos Tsiolkas, for example, sketches a blighted landscape where displaced inhabitants launch a civil war to unseat more recent homesteaders. The first indigene we meet is black, suggesting kinship with Australian Aborigines or black Zimbabweans, but he is later revealed to be Muslim, implying parallels with the Palestinians, the Lebanese or Turkish Cypriots. An additional conflict emerges however when he verbalises the sensual, homoerotic feelings he harbours for his former neighbour-turned-enemy. Further references to sexual mutilation and opposing forces on either riverbank draw comparisons with the Balkan wars. By throwing these disparate historical references together, Tsiolkas explicates nothing. To liken the Australian Aborigines to, for example, Muslim Kosovars is at best simplistic, and at worst a misleading conflation. Whatever point he intended to impart is overwhelmed by the poorly integrated points of reference which the narrative details evoke.

More successful was Andrew Bovell’s tale of an injured black rebel captured by a white homesteader and tied to a chair. An excellent dramatic 2-hander, the shifting power relations approached (though did not attain) those of the play Death and the Maiden or recent Keene/Taylor projects. As he sits, bound, the homesteader explains her love for her grandfather’s handcrafted chair–a symbol of the patriarch as a pioneer homebuilder. He however adds that the leather seats were in fact made from the hides of massacred Indigenous people.

This vividly conveys how different historical actors interpret the same symbol in radically opposed ways. The specific reference though is again less than ideal. While trophies such as skulls were commonly scavenged by Australian settlers, there is, to my knowledge, no recorded instance of whites producing objects from black corpses. This reference can only therefore be compared to the infamous lampshades made from Holocaust victims’ skin. These hateful relics are however ambivalent for other reasons. They are not only extremely rare, but also sometimes of dubious providence, becoming entangled in particular debates on authenticity, as well as the extent and even existence of a Nazi policy of extermination. Although the comparison of Australian settlement with the Holocaust has a rhetorical force, it is largely unjustified due to the predominantly non-systematic nature of mainland frontier war atrocities. Further, engaging in the necessary defence against Holocaust denial in the context of Australian race relations is unlikely to clarify issues. Bovell’s work is therefore theatrically astute, but politically problematic.

Similar dualities mar Melissa Reeves’ Absurdist Savant, dealing with a delightfully oversized infant (a plain-talking, smoking Rodney Afif, dressed in a giant baby-suit, interjecting: “But Mum, I’m evil!”) born to the daughter of a depressed group of Pinter-esque losers living in a blighted, country town. Though there are fine moments, the finale with Afif directly haranguing the audience reduces this strange, surreal work to crude agit-prop, likely to convince no one.

The gem is Patricia Cornelius’ Blunt. A group of women attired in slightly-dated, patterned dresses, lie listlessly upon sand-filled sacks, drearily illuminated by the gloaming as they moan in clipped, intercutting exclamations: “We’re fucked.” They watch the diseased river running through their barren lands–they too are barren, we learn–before one woman ventures into the ooze to claim an abandoned child (abruptly whisked onstage via a pram on a string). This is a post-apocalyptic version of the story of Moses, the male and female cast playing, in deadpan fashion, unsexed maids from a horribly polluted world where noone cares enough to even try to find a moral or political leader. The unsympathetic women inevitably become disquieted about their sister’s rediscovery of maternity as a political protest, stifling the child and any hope left, before they collectively sink back onto the heap, of which they have become a part.

In this case, the absence of specific cultural or political markers within Cornelius’ text renders it far more amenable to political readings: a metaphor for the loss of Australian political initiative and compassion, fear of the outsider and of change, and other general themes of which the play speaks eloquently and amusingly (shades of Ionescu’s Rhinoceros). While it is satisfying to see MWT continuing in the vein of Tower of Light (1999) to employ more abstract theatrical symbols than in Who’s Afraid of the Working Class (1998), Fever is an ailing venture which requires aggressive dramaturgical medication.

Fever, Melbourne Workers’ Theatre , director Julian Meyrick; actors David Adamson, Rodney Afif, Tony Briggs, Daniela Farinacci, Eugenia Fragos, LeRoy Parsons, Pauline Whyman; lighting Paul Jackson; set and costumes Louise McCarthy; sound David Franzke; music Irine Vela; Trades Hall, Melbourne Sept 18-Oct 5

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. web

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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