Enter if you dare! A new play is about to chill the very essence of the Malthouse stage later this month with Declan Greene’s adaptation of  Kenneth Cook’s novel, Wake in Fright. An outback horror story, it tells the tale of a  man named John who gets waylaid in an old mining town, and what follows…well… is simply the stuff of nightmares!

A long time bucket list item, Wake In Fright is one of  writer and director Greene’s favourite books, and one he’s wanted to adapt to the stage for ages – he just never had an idea for how.

“Then I heard this album by friendships (this incredible audio/visual duo) called Nullarbor 1988-1989,” says Greene. ” It’s a really incredible, dystopic exploration of Australian identity, but filtered through sounds and images you’d never associate with ‘Australia’ in the clichéd sense. It made me think about Wake In Fright, and suddenly I knew I wanted to make a version of the show with them, and I was really amazed and blown-away when Nic and Misha came onboard.”

Cooke’s psychological thriller was penned in 1961, and was his debut novel. Criticised by some as naive and romantic in parts, it still had the capacity to evoke strong  visceral images. Its potent political (albeit metaphorical) overtones said much about the Australian psyche of the time and, for Greene, this became productive fodder for his adaptation.

“I think Kenneth Cook wrote it as a very acidic critique of Australian nationalism in 1961 – and the divide between the ‘coastal’ identity and the heart of the country,” says Greene. ” And though we’re not setting our version in the present, we’re using the story to do a very present-day critique of mainstream Australian identity in 2019. I love the story about how at one of the first screenings of the Wake In Fright film someone stood up and yelled out “that’s not us!”. I love that it had that power. I hope we can honour the story by creating a similar effect.”

Fans of Cook’s original tale can expect all the events of the book, but in a slightly different order – plus some extra stuff they might not remember…!

Greene’s innovative and exciting adaptation takes the role of John Grant and puts it into the very capable hands of the extraordinary Zahra Newman – in fact, Newman will play all of the roles!

Greene’s desire and vision was for “sound” to be the primary focus of the work – stripping everything else away. “Working with just one performer’s voice seemed to me the best way to do this,” explains Greene. “And when I started out, my points of political interest in Wake In Fright were mainly about the way it constructed masculinity. So I wanted to work with a female or female-identifying performer who could bring another set of perspectives to this.” 

A completely collaborative rehearsal process between actor, director and writer has seen the evolution  of many exciting discoveries for both Greene and Newman.

“We did a two-week development on Wake In Fright, starting out with just little scraps of writing I’d done, so Zahra totally came up with her ‘takes’ on all these characters through improvisation and playing around on the floor,” says Greene, acknowledging that it was really amazing to sit back and watch her work like this. “I think my favourite moment was when she was playing around with Doc Tydon’s voice. We were looking for a way to signal him as high status and elitist, in spite of his degraded social status – and then Zahra started doing this very clipped, ruling-class South African accent – based on some people she used to serve in a café. It was extremely funny and surprising but also opened up a whole new dimension of the character.”

Greene’s memory is foggy about when he and Newman first met but he clearly remembers the first time he saw her on stage, in the tiny, tiny Dog Theatre playing the lead in Adena Jacobs’ production of Elektra.” It was a mind-blowing performance, and I’ve been desperate to work with her ever since – it took 9 years but it was worth the wait.”

Greene describes Newman as incredibly, incredibly hard-working and dedicated. “We would rehearse Wake in Fright all day and then afterwards she would perform the lead in a 3-hour show (Cat On a Hot Tin Roof at Sydney Theatre Company)… Then back to rehearsals the next day. Somehow in there she found time to learn all those the lines and also the timings for all the soundscapes in the show… It’s mind-melting stuff.”

Highly lauded, sought after and award winning, Greene’s productions, and writing,  continue to be critically acclaimed and superlative examples of out of the box thinking. Not surprisingly, Greene admits that in art his taste is really varied, loving really ludicrous and trashy and vapid stuff as well as challenging and avant-garde stuff as well as any combination of the two. As a writer he admits to only recently became interested in doing adaptations. “If I’m going to adapt an older story to the stage I really want to make sure it has something to say about our contemporary moment – that there’s a strong reason to tell it now,” he states.

Make no mistake, Wake in Fright is rugged, brutal and disturbing (may you dream of the Devil and wake in fright) but when asked how scary it really is, Greene says, “It depends on how much of a sympathetic vomiter you are. There is a lot of retching going on in there – BYO barf bag, please.” So, be warned!

June 21 – July 14


[email protected] or (03) 9685 5111

Rehearsal images: Phoebe Powell