Multi-Award winning Australian playwright, Hannie Rayson, poses potent ethical question in her newest work, Extinction. It’s the urgency becoming to our lives in the age of Global Warming that arouses Rayson’s interest and scrutiny. It’s a thought provoking and challenging piece, opening in August, and a co-production of Arts Centre Melbourne, Geelong Performing Arts Centre (GPAC) and Red Stitch Actors Theatre.
The play was a commission from the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York who invited Rayson to pitch an idea. “The Manhattan Theatre Club has a partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to commission, develop and produce new plays about maths, science and technology,” says Rayson. “Maths and technology are not my strong suits. But the prospect of tackling themes about environmental politics was very tantalizing. Politics and science are wary bedfellows. This is very seductive territory for a playwright.”
The play draws its inspiration from the work of the Conservation Ecology Centre in the heart of the Otway Ranges on the wild south coast of Victoria and centres around the tiger quoll, once a ruling force in the Otway forest, but is now almost extinct.
“I knew about the tiger quoll that was feared to be extinct in the region,” says Rayson, who began her script by questioning her own emotional response. “If a species goes extinct, why should that concern me? I live in Fitzroy,” she says. “Am I so estranged from nature that a species could be snuffed out of existence during my lifetime, without my awareness? Or care?”
“The realpolitik which interested me in this situation was this: given that the conservation dollar is limited, what is worth saving? And does there come a point where we have to say, “ This species is too far gone. It’s now a lost cause”. What would happen if there was money on the table to mount a massive project which might restore the tiger quolls and other threatened species in the area, but it came from one of the biggest greenhouse polluters – the coal industry?”
The play is about a man who returns to the country of his childhood, a dairy farm in the Otways, to tell his ageing parents that his wife has left him. On the journey his car hits an animal in a storm at night on the Great Ocean Road. He recognizes the animal as a tiger quoll and wraps it in a towel and takes it to the nearest wildlife rescue centre. He and an American zoologist, Dr Piper Ross, work through the night to save the animal. This sets in train a project to see if there is a surviving wild population ranging the forest and to rescue them from the brink of extinction. The man, Harry Jewell brings the money to a small regional university institute strapped for cash. He also brings an enthusiasm for exploring coal in the Otways. The question is, would you get into bed with Big Coal, especially if Big Coal in the form of Harry Jewell is charming, witty and very seductive?
Rayson says that Australia’s mammal extinction record is the worst in the world and, for Rayson, a Helpmann award winning playwright, this is exactly the sort of social issue she champions.
“I am attracted to the kind of big social issues which form part of the national conversation and yet lend themselves to being played out in ordinary families and workplaces,” she says. “I am interested in power and politics but not in its reductive dualism i.e. left and right, black and white. The theatre is a place for a multiplicity of voices and always the characters, nursing wounds and desires, bring their personal history stumbling and dancing in search of meaning.”