Did you ever hear the sad story of Benjamin, the last Thylacine? Captured by a Mr Mullins or a Mr Churchill (depending on whom you trust), Benji was admitted into Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart. He was a healthy looking fella (though some reports suggest he was in fact a “she”, and the mother of cubs sold off by Mullins). Footage captured by naturalist David Flea show a healthy, feisty marsupial. Black stripes, trademark of the Thylacine, rake across Benji’s back like a clawmark. He jumps up at the cage as onlookers provoke him and he lumbers about with a lanky, awkward gait. He has long legs, a thin body and a tiny head. Benjamin, the last living Thylacine, was killed by human neglect. Left outside his locked cage he froze and starved to death, despite the tireless efforts of curator Alison Reid.
All this and much more take place in Justine Campbell and Sarah Hamilton’s play that’s part-Australian legend, part-indictment against sexist bureaucracy, and all riveting storytelling. They Saw a Thylacine is two very different tales of encounters with a Thylacine. One takes place out in the Tasmanian bush, as a tracker named Beatrix “Beaty” McCulloch puts herself through the wars to stalk the one she’s seen. The other follows frustrated taxidermist-turned-zoo curator Alison Reid as she tries to save Benjamin from the harsh Tasmanian cold and neglect from zoo officials.
The project comes from theatre company Human Animal Exchange. Hamilton and Campbell started the company after they collaborated together on A Donkey and A Parrot, a one woman show starring Hamilton. Human Animal Exchange make theatre that “[explores] the relationship and struggle between our human and animal instincts, and our exchange with the natural world.” Justine Campbell has writing and directing credits to her name for Back from the Dead Red among others, and she’s acted in shows all over Australia. Sarah Hamilton has performed in Adelaide and Melbourne Fringe shows, frequently collaborating with playwright Adam J.A. Cass.
The company’s human/animal themes are certainly at work in Thylacine at the Malthouse. The two performers sit on a sparsely furnished stage to tell their stories. Matt Adey’s lighting design casts soft yellow shadows over the performers, occasionally plunging into dark blue when the dialogue pauses. The lighting was serviceable but nothing special, leaving the actors and set mostly well-lit.
The show’s magic is in its script and the vivacious performers. Like Phil Ormsby and Alex Ellis’s Drowning in Veronica Lake, another magnificent ex-Fringe show still doing rounds, the writing and acting are at the forefront.
Beaty (Hamilton) plays her tracker character like she was born in the Australian Bush. Her speech is clipped, missing pronouns and articles, so that every animal she refers to is like a member of the family. “Sorry ‘bout death, Poss,” she chimes in after telling us how she bashed a possum in the head, skinned it and cooked it. There are too many gems in Beaty’s surreal story to name here, from her interactions with Alfred the hunter after he tries to kiss her; Beaty’s attempt to hold her breath and hide underwater naked, or the way she pronounces Thylacine: “Thy-lah-see-nee” with a real nasally, Aussie twang. I could’ve listened to Beaty’s bush-bashing tales all night long.
Aussie lingo is a real staple of the piece, making us feel a part of the 1930s, depression-era setting. Money is “a few bobs”, winds blow “south westerly” and of course there’s plenty of profanity, especially in the way Alison describes her gendered struggle: “Different rules apply to those with a cunt and those with a cock.” Amid the language’s vivid imagery, of blood seeping from wounds and sleets of snow covering the forest ground, it was easy to be absorbed into the setting these two created. It was a shame Jethro Woodward’s soundtrack didn’t add much to the setting, instead remaining in the background and occasionally wafting in like chimes in the wind.
Alison Reid (Campbell) covers the history and (hazy) facts of the situation. She inherits the zoo from her father, but quickly finds she can’t get much done with all these old men in the way. They take her complaints with nonchalance and move in slow motion when she asks for their help. Alison’s story fills in much of the stuff that helps drive home the message about endangered species and animal rights. That said, some of her comments showed a little too much awareness of the rampant sexism and felt anachronistic: “It’s 1936, I’m a woman and he’s a man.” True, but doesn’t help the verisimilitude any more than the story already had.
Such an immersive play was absorbing in spite of its set design. The stage, bone-white, appeared more like the interior design of an ultra-modern city apartment than the Australian bush. Dining chairs littered the stage, a peculiar silver globe hung close to the floor (not once did it become useful) and the burning overhead lights must be exclusive to catalogues from the future, judging by their incomprehensible style. Why not situate the actors in an outdoor setting, get them on logs around a fire or next to an old zoo cage? Why not dirty up the stage, fitting the décor with the grimy language? What did any of this have to do with the 1930s, Tasmania or even Australia? The program cover has Campbell and Hamilton in ratty, period-appropriate dresses, yet Chloe Greaves costumes were just black pants and tan tops.
It appears to be an unfortunate staple of Malthouse productions to situate them in a sort of non-place. The stage floats through an abyss where markers of context and setting become obsolete. This might fit with surreal productions or science fiction allegories, but it made no sense here. Hamilton and Campbell have created a deeply political and contextual play, grown straight out of Australian soil, and the setting tried to dragged this out from under it by putting an unnecessary spin on a tight script.
Incongruities aside, this is a moving piece of Australiana in the vein of a traditional folktale. The execution is rhythmic, sensual and poetic, and the performances are inspired. They Saw a Thylacine shows us that storytelling can be used to immortalise what we have lost or, in the case of the Tassie tiger, what we’ve let die.
“Perhaps you can look into sourcing another?” Alison’s boss asks her after Benjamin passes away. This play serves as a reminder that, if we neglect to preserve the species’ that need our help, we’ll end up with bones in museums and only stories left to tell.