If you’re like me and drawn to the golden era of filmmaking, the 1970s, then chances are the Aussie classic, Wake in Fright has appeared somewhere on your ‘movies to see before you die’ list. Shamefully, I was unaware that the film was actually based on a novel by Kenneth Cook that preceded the beloved screen classic.  

Wake in Fright had long been one of my favourite Australian films and because of this, I possessed a childlike enthusiasm for the stage adaptation by Declan Greene, premiering at Malthouse Theatre last Wednesday night. Despite my incredibly high expectations and the potential for them to be squashed, I was far from disappointed. Wake in Fright was thoroughly entertaining and had an air of environmental and cultural warnings of zeitgeist proportions nestled in this frightening narrative.

The show’s co-creator and star was the undeniably talented, Zahra Newman who displayed her acting prowess and vast range of abilities as the play’s solo cast member. It would have been no easy feat performing with such a high level of energy and enthusiasm for seventy minutes and Newman didn’t miss a beat. The standing ovation she received at curtain call was indicative of the admiration the audience had for her robust and dynamic performance. In addition to her talent for mastering an array of accents and characters, Newman was also dazzling to watch, with a strong physicality and acrobatic ability, reaching its zenith in the final moments of the play.

In addition to the key creators, it would be remiss not to give the highest praise to the music & composition by art-electronica band, friendships; the sound design by James Paul, the lighting and projection design by Verity Hampson and the stage management, by Cecily Rabey. All of these elements came together seamlessly and raised the production value of the show and without a doubt made Wake in Fright a feast for the eyes and ears. While patrons were generously offered earplugs upon entering the space and encouraged to wear them, I found myself reveling in the sights and sounds, unencumbered. The stakes for the protagonist, John Grant, as he stumbles through his notorious beer binge across an unforgiving landscape, were heightened by the haunting sound design and the thrilling, visceral projections.

Malthouse Theatre tend to deliver on most fronts and it is always a thrill to see their latest content. I have observed that a common thread in recent shows are stories that have become Australian folklore, with a strong connection to the land, from Picnic at Hanging Rock last year to Barbara and the Camp Dogs earlier this year. It’s no secret that Australians love to explore the mystery, wonder and indeed harshness of the outback and that was given a frightening perspective with this adaptation. The themes evident in the film (and I would imagine, the novel) have stood the test of time in terms of their relevance to audiences. The adaptation reimagined themes of xenophobia and the parochialism of a small-town mindset with renewed insight and horror. 

I was unsurprised to read after the show that the director and person responsible for penning this adaptation, Declan Greene is an accomplished theatre-maker and the current Resident Artist at Malthouse Theatre. In my opinion, he captured the best parts of the original and elevated the storytelling for the stage and for a contemporary audience. His brand of Wake in Fright subverted the dominance of the male gaze by having a female play all of the parts. The themes of masculinity and homoeroticism that were always an undercurrent in Wake in Fright have never been more poignant than with a woman at the helm.

Even though Wikipedia will try and tell you that Wake in Fright is a Drama/Thriller, for me, it’s always sat a little more comfortably in the genre of horror. It mines the murky territory of morality and plays in that very interesting space of being at the mercy of the land. John Grant thinks his environment is horrifying until he is confronted with the horror that lives within him.

This exhilarating adaptation continues at Malthouse Theatre until the 14th of July.

Images: Pia Johnson.

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