Photos – Chris Lundie
“Fuck me sideways, it’s cold”, is a great opening line from a character in a play about climate change. As another character stresses, climate is not just about weather, and Jonathan Biggins' play, Australia Day, attests to that.
Australia Day is definitely about climate change and only a little about the weather – an entertaining, engaging examination of the changing political and social climate, the degrees of change, the hot button issues of mateship, multiculturalism and terra nullius.
A cold night in the scout hall of Coriole turns into hot debate as a diverse and disparate committee meet to plan the town's Australia Day events and ceremonies.
There's the Mayor, Brian Harrigan, hardware store proprietor and Liberal Party pre-selection hopeful and his loyal offsider, Robert Wilson, deputy Mayor and deputy chair. There's long term committee members, Country Women's Association stalwart, Maree Bucknell, and local builder, Wally Stewart. And there's a couple of newcomers – Helen McInnes, local Greens councillor and Chester Lee, Australian born Vietnamese primary school teacher.
From the get go there is friction between the old faction maintaining the old fiction of White Australia as Lucky Country and this makes for robust conflict, acerbic comedy and a pricking of the political class. Like Alan Seymour's classic play, The One Day of the Year, Australia Day takes an iconic date in our national calendar and uses it as a barometer of generational and social shifting.
Louise Fisher's production is wonderfully well cast. Les Asmussen is a walking expletive as Wally, the very model of the curmudgeonly, crusty, cussing, true blue, blue speaking, blue collar White Australian traditionalist, a country King Canute trying to turn back the tide of political correctness. “Haven’t met many Asians by the name of Chester.”, he says to the new committee member. Lap Nguyen, cheeky and cheery as the young Lee beautifully times his succinct riposte, “I’ve met one or two Wallys”.
Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame is steely as Wally's Green bete noir, feisty but fragile, into renewables but savvy to the real politic, imbued with a “whatever it takes” mentality to get things moving into a sustainable future. Peter Eyres' Brian Harrigan has the due gravitas and charm to carry his character's local politics leadership role and his aspiring federal seat ambitions.
Martin Portus presents a solid salt of the earth persona as Robert Wilson, Harrigan's faithful right hand, conciliatory counsellor and informed moderate. A barb suggesting Robert ought to be on Radio National has a delicious resonance in respect of Portus' considerable contribution to the public broadcaster.
Alice Livingstone is marvellous as Maree Bracknell, calmly conservative and quietly confused in a sea of change, stoic in the coming (literal) shit storm, and, in a culturally cringe worthy but nonetheless hilarious scene, literally playing possum.
Biggins' play may look at first blink to be peopled by a bunch of stereotypes, but he has perceived the realities that underlie them, and Fisher and her acute ensemble have brought a commonwealth of credence to these characters.
David Marshall-Martin's set is scout hall exact for the first act, replete with a terrifically terrible rural mural by Catriona McCabe, transforming into a tacky tent for the second.
Audiences all let us rejoice for plays like Australia Day; the script is golden soil that gives wealth for toil by labourers in the playground of the New Theatre. This production gives every page a step up to the stage and advances Australian theatre fare.
New Theatre presents
by Jonathan Biggins
Director Louise Fischer
Venue: New Theatre | 542 King Street, Newtown NSW
Dates: 14-11-2017 – 16-12-2017
Tickets: $35 – $20