Meekatharra in Western Australia’s remote mid-west is a naturally evocative Australian setting. Flat, red earth as far as the eye can see, dry, isolated and with a population of only about 800 people, a sense of foreboding is innately embedded. It’s the perfect place for things to be done away from inquisitive eyes and for crimes to go unnoticed – or perhaps even unpunished.
Dan Walls’ tale of a high school principal for whom that freedom from supervision allowed him to take advantage of the education department’s stipends, is given energy by its setting in ‘Meeka’, as the locals know it. Based on a true story that is not only shocking in its brutality, but also in its outcomes, creates a sense of intrigue that is gripping to its end.
Following two mysterious attempts at burning down the school’s admin block – for which a culprit was never pinned down – the WA Education Department have become suspicious of spending within the school, choosing to send an auditor by plane from Perth to check out the books. As Walls has it, the principal John McDonald (played by Kevin Summers) is generous with school property. Televisions and Blu-Ray players are gifted to staff and upset parents alike, school vehicles are used for personal purposes and dog food is rung up on the school’s credit card.
Young teachers Tom (Liam Gillespie) and Bec (Claire Pearson) are comfortable with this graft and corruption in the way it brings some bonuses to their otherwise thankless jobs and the lack of opportunity teaching in Meeka offers. Middle-aged educator Tiffany (Claire Costigan), is less corruptible and more focussed on her career – not one to shy away from being part of the team, but keen to see Meeka’s school get more funding to help the students when she hears someone from the education department is about to arrive.
However, the minute the auditor Kevin De Souza (Keith Brockett) touches down, Principal McDonald does everything to distract him from the task at hand, even so far as discreetly attempting to pimp Bec out on him. A ‘sundowner’ barbecue becomes an opportunity to ply the man with liquor and explore every avenue to potentially turn him away from reporting the truth of how school money has been spent. But De Souza isn’t that easily swayed and next morning at the school a fight breaks out in the office that leaves the auditor with multiple hammer wounds to the back of the head and the principal with a bruised thigh.
Director Shaun Kigma is expert at building and creating tension on stage, a virtue that sees Meeka ramp up from its carefully paced plot of attempted extortion to a full-scale thriller. In concert with Sound Designer Craig Tracy and Lighting Designer Jason Bovaird, Kingma turns the recounting of the hammer attack by the teachers into ‘edge of the seat’ suspense. Further, Bovaird’s lighting, along with Kingma’s jarrah-like redwood rostra and withered bushes, beautifully evoke the sense of the red-dust WA outback.
While Walls goes to lengths to show a balanced viewpoint from both McDonald and De Souza, the two characters a definitely portrayed as sitting on opposite sides of righteousness. As the principal, Kevin Summers brings a palpable level of sleazy dishonesty to the man, quick to be politically correct in certain company, but often pointing out his efforts to do so. Summers creates a beautifully villainous character that contrasts markedly with Keith Brockett’s De Souza. Giving the auditor a gentle soul, laced with tenacity by his previous near-death experience, Brockett is both charming and strong in his portrayal.
Walls’ script is full of humour that perfectly balances the darker elements of the story and reflects the laconic nature of those who choose to live in the Australian outback. Serving as somewhat of a narrator who glues together the story is Eileen, a local parent and volunteer fire fighter played with great warmth by Kelly Nash. Eileen is the typification of what we think of an outback hardened woman to be, tough as nails on the outside with a soft heart and a wicked tongue. Nash relaxes into her character as she brings the same comfort to the audience and adds an essential outsider’s point of view to this group of co-workers. Gillespie also makes great use of the comedy afforded him in the script, creating a likeable character of the venal P.E. teacher. Christina Costigan brings great integrity and humour to principled teacher Tiffany. While Claire Pearson paints Bec as a spineless accessory.
Meeka is a fascinating Australian true-crime story that could otherwise have been lost to the desert if not for this dramatisation. Not every horror in the outback is ‘Wolf Creek’ in its scale, but certainly this one can send just as much of a shiver up your spine.