Playhouse, February 11


Since the First Fleet spewed out its cargo of cons and screws, Australian men have often enjoyed playing brutes in a brutish land. That’s the awful truth that lay behind Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright. Those who would deny it could ponder the fact that other nationalities can drink and not become violent: here the nanny state introduced lock-out laws to patch a weeping sore two centuries old. Then there’s the epidemic of domestic violence, the after-hours antics of sporting thugs, the veiled xenophobia and the back-stabbing that passes for party politics.

Zahra Newman. Photos: Daniel Boud

Cook’s anti-hero, John Grant, a first-year school teacher in a one-pub-town, hits a male-mentality brick wall in the bigger town of Bundanyabba on his way to Sydney. It’s a mining mecca; a man-magnet where women are almost as rare as unicorns. There Grant collides with beers, two-up, beers, sex, more beers, violence and the joys firing bullets into unsuspecting kangaroos. Business as usual.

In 1971 director Ted Kotcheff and screenwriter Evan Jones laminated Cook’s story into one of the most compelling Australian films of all time. Now director Declan Greene has, against the odds, turned the tale into a one-woman play. This was unimaginable in advance. How could actor Zahra Newman be Grant and the mob of misfits he encounters? Would it just be a talking-book delivered on a stage?

Photos: Daniel Boud.

No. Greene (for Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre) has done something miraculous. Together with an audio-visual duo called friendships, plus James Paul (sound design), Verity Hampson (lighting and projection design) and the astonishing Newman, he has squeezed the kernel of Cook’s book into an hour of story essentially just spoken into a microphone, and yet made as theatrical as any coronation or a public execution. This was one of the fastest hours of my life.

Newman begins as herself, talking to us about the evil of lead-poisoning in Broken Hill, the town Kotcheff used as the fictional Bundanyabba (or “the Yabba” to its friends). But once the story begins, it moves at a hectic pace: Newman fizzing with physical energy and madly swapping voices. Sometimes those voices are treated electronically, and the characters who aren’t Grant – the bent copper, the alcoholic doctor and the rest – become infinitely more grotesque even than Kotcheff could make them, because now they’re infesting our imaginations rather than being extant. Suddenly a story supposedly set 60 years ago becomes part 19th-century gothic horror and part piercing depiction of an Australia that still exists today, and, alas, will continue to exist until some blokes grow out of using violence to hide their sexual infantilism and ineptitude.