In 1892, Henry Lawson’s short story, The Drover’s Wife, was published, telling the story of a woman and her four children alone in their house in the Australian bush, while her husband is away droving. A snake enters the house and is spotted by one of the children, but it disappears into a wood-heap. While she waits for the snake to emerge, the woman of the house ruminates on the hardships with which she has to deal over the years in her husband’s absence.

Leah Purcell grew up with Lawson’s story and has long held a desire to do something with the piece herself. And thanks to her receipt of the 2014 Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s Award, Purcell has been afforded the opportunity to have her own profoundly reinterpreted version of The Drover’s Wife brought to life on stage at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre.

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Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife (Photo by Brett Boardman)

Purcell’s piece takes inspiration from the story of her own great grandfather, turning the tale of the isolated woman of the land on its head and fixes her gaze firmly on the treatment of both women and Indigenous Australians in the nineteenth century at the hands of white Australian men. Completely akin to the backdrop in which its events play out, the updated tale of The Drover’s Wife is harsh and brutal. Lawson himself was once quoted as saying, “It is quite time that our children were taught a little more about their country for shame’s sake”. Nothing in Purcell’s contemporary text would have you think that her own intentions are anything else.

Molly (played by Purcell) finds an Aboriginal man, Yadaka (Mark Coles Smith), in her yard with an iron collar around his neck. She’s told by swagman Thomas McNealy (Tony Cogin) of a man on the run, who stands accused of horrific crimes. But is Yadaka the guilty party? Molly is unconvinced and allows Yadaka to remain on her property and work, forming a kind of bond with her and her 14-year-old son, Danny (Will McDonald). As the story progresses, the unjust treatment of Yadaka by local men is a recurring theme, brought to the forefront by the interactions with a trooper and a merchant (both played by Benedict Hardie), but its ultimately the utterly repulsive and savage behaviour of two stockmen (again, Cogin and Hardie) that brings home, to genuinely sickening effect, the barbaric and brutish regime that sanctioned the cruel treatment of both women and the original inhabitants of the land.

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Mark Coles Smith and Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife (Photo by Brett Boardman)

It’s easy to believe that a reconceptualisation of The Drover’s Wife has been brewing in Purcell’s mind for some time because this adaptation of Lawson’s work is a thoughtfully crafted, eloquently written and powerful piece of theatre that’s simultaneously difficult to watch but impossible not to be drawn into.

Purcell has created in Molly a complex and compelling character, and her own portrayal of the role does total justice to the tough bush woman. As fragments of Molly’s own past are gradually revealed, we come to understand that, like Yadaka, her life has been far from easy since birth. Under the direction of Leticia Cáceres, Purcell is exceptional, and her performance will stay with you long after leaving the theatre.

As Yadaka, Smith is also extremely impressive. As a storyteller, Smith is completely engaging, and there is in Yudaka such integrity and something so authentic in the way he presents himself to Molly from the outset that it’s easy to believe her scepticism at his guilt for the terrible wrongdoings of which he’s accused.

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Mark Coles Smith in The Drover’s Wife (Photo by Brett Boardman)

In his Belvoir debut, high schooler McDonald proves to be the perfect fit for Danny, the shiny, naïve 14-year-old, but he also brings to the character a convincing sense of strength, which he calls upon to assist his mother whenever and however she needs. There’s a palpable mother-and-son bond between the pair.

Rounding out this extraordinary cast are seasoned players Cogin and Hardie, both of whom are enormously impactful wearing various guises that magnify a shameful chapter of white Australian history, mustering all of the menace, violence and ugliness that is conceivable.

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Tony Cogin in The Drover’s Wife (Photo by Brett Boardman)

The harshness and brutality of the events is mirrored appropriately by a production design that amplifies those qualities. Using only a few physical pieces, set designer Stephen Curtis has visually evoked the relentlessness of the dense scrubland of the Alpine Country, but somehow also manages to achieve something resembling the beauty of a Frederick McCubbin painting. That set design coheres effectively with The Sweats’ atmospheric soundscape and Verity Hampson’s wonderful lighting choices.

Leah Purcell’s take on The Drover’s Wife deserves its place as a classic in its own right. It’s a vital, new Australian work that every person who appreciates good theatre should take the opportunity to see if they have the chance. It reminds us of events not comfortably behind us, which must never be forgotten in order for us to continue moving forward. Of writing to capture the truth of Indigenous history post-British settlement, Purcell said, “I wrote like I was riding a wild brumby in the Alpine country, and no apology for the rough ride”.

No apology is necessary.

The Drover’s Wife plays at the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir St Theatre (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills) until 16 October. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here

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