Anthem Review by Laura Hartnell
Twenty years after their now almost-mythological play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class, four of Australia’s most prominent playwrights – Patricia Cornelius, Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas, and composer Irine Vela – reunite with Anthem, a scathing snapshot of modern Australia. As the writers state in their programme notes, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class “told the story of a group of characters whose lives were impacted upon by the rise of economic rationalism.”
Anthem – a series of intertwining vignettes – follow the lives of similarly disadvantaged people impacted by modern Australia’s unrelenting sexism, racism and classism.
What is difficult to discern in this production, directed by Susie Dee, is whether the deep cruelty inherent in each scene – and particularly embedded in the jokes – are meant to be a scathing critique of modern Australia, or whether Anthem isn’t aware of some of its missed marks. What is certain is that the jabs hurled between characters onstage had the mostly white, upper-middle-class audience laughing at the characters and not with them. This made for uneasy viewing of a work created by a team usually known for their empathetic and multi-layered portrayals of underprivileged and overlooked Australians. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see such a genuinely diverse cast together onstage, telling stories that sadly aren’t often enough on Australian stages.
Anthem is mostly set on trains – a public place, and one of the last that Australians of many different backgrounds can mingle together, often literally competing for space. Navigating multiple story lines that are cut together and circle back on themselves, the cast of twelve all handled their multiple roles well but mostly felt under-rehearsed. Ruci Kaisila played a young Aboriginal woman who appeared at moments throughout the show to sing our “anthems” – ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘I Still Call Australia Home,’ and, confusingly, ‘Amazing Grace’ – while shaking a tin cup and demanding the characters (and audience) “pay up.” Kaisila’s performance was commanding, but her character came far too close to the racist Magical Negro trope to be comfortable, and the script didn’t seem aware of this troubling representation. The last line of the play should have belonged to her, but was undermined with a strange coda tacked on the end that weakened the production.
Despite this, and despite the misdirected cruel humour, many of the vignettes expose and interrogate the lives of those disadvantaged in modern Australian society. Scenes between an apparently upper-class (but newly homeless) woman and her Asian former-cleaner offers both empathy and social critique. There is a funny but heartbreaking story of the love between two mistreated employees, and a gripping scene with a young single mother – magnetically portrayed by Eva Seymour – struggling to get her son back to her dad’s house before the court-appointed cut-off time.
The set is simple – three concrete staircases leading to train seats on three moveable trucks – but the actors struggle to move it quickly or gracefully during scene changes, which makes for distracting interludes. The real stars of the show are Paul Jackson’s dynamic lighting and Irine Vela’s wonderfully striking score, played live onstage by violinist Jenny M. Thomas and double bassist Dan Witton.
Anthem shows us the scar tissue of contemporary Australia. Just as Who’s Afraid of the Working Class did twenty years ago, Anthem succeeds in demonstrating that the stories of forgotten Australians have a place on our stages, and that their voices deserve to be heard.
Set – 3
Costume – 3
Sound – 5
Lighting – 5
Performance – 3
Stage Management – 3
Direction – 3