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BWW Review: ANTHEM at Melbourne International Arts Festival is compelling, authentic, and necessary


20 years after "Who's Afraid of the Working Class?" premiered at the Melbourne Workers Theatre, the same group of exceptional writers have come back together to hold the mirror back up to our country with Anthem. Shining the light once again on every day acts of defiance and resilience, their new work gives deserved spotlight to real stories of identity and ownership in a time when the nation refuses to recognise either.

BWW Review: ANTHEM at Melbourne International Arts Festival is compelling, authentic, and necessary
Photo by Pia Johnson

Told through a series of vignettes, Anthem gives us a glimpse into the lives of Melburnians in 2019 and provides appropriately unsettling perspective on our daily disregard for those around us. This reviewer's morning train commutes have definitely been changed forever. Anthem is full of genuine social commentary and is surely set to be an important part of theatrical history in this country - a vitally important work for Australians of all ages to see.

Sublimely directed by Susie Dee, the characters and narratives are varied and complex, each posed to give each audience member someone on stage to identify with. Your opinion is represented - and subsequently challenged - in a series of expertly subtle manoeuvres. The comedy of the piece makes the questioning of your long-held beliefs an easier pill to swallow, with smatterings of laughter coming sometimes from the most unexpected places. Although, perhaps some privileged festival and theatre goers were laughing at moments they really should have been contemplating.

Andrew Bovell's Uncensored sets the tone for the clash of the classes addressed throughout the piece. Taking place on a train, the setting for Anthem levels the playing field for the characters - on a train, we're all just trying to find a seat and get from A to B unscathed. Whether it's the Eurostar or the Epping line, we meet people of all creeds and colours on a train and we're all sharing a journey.

BWW Review: ANTHEM at Melbourne International Arts Festival is compelling, authentic, and necessary
Photo by Pia Johnson

Melissa Reeves' contribution gives us a mad cap adventure of two underpaid workers that take the fight against capitalism into their own hands. Whilst providing a big portion of the comedy for the evening, it is also a particularly poignant depiction of desperate people doing desperate things. Eryn Jean Norvill and Sahil Saluja are wonderful to watch as the struggling pair, bouncing around the stage as they journey in and out of the chaos.

Patricia Cornelius' Terror is a highlight, addressing not just class and economic disparity, but gender as well, as we meet three women who are making it through one struggle only to face more. Maude Davey is exceptional as always, proving once again why she's such a revered presence in the Australian industry. She will make you laugh and break your heart in the blink of an eye. From gentle and fragile to strong and defiant in one fell swoop, Davey is magnificent.

One of the most topical narratives belongs to Brothers & Sisters by Christos Tsiolkas; confronting us with the realities of life in Melbourne's less affluent suburbs, that the wealth is retained by the 1%, and how impossible it can be to escape the shackles of being born into poverty. Of course, these stories so often belong to indigenous families and communities in Australia, so Tsiolkas begs us to recognise this as well. Carly Sheppard, Osamah Sami, and Reef Ireland are truly brilliant as the siblings, flipping the script on how we perceive strangers and stereotype in a glance.

Osamah Sami also gives a moving performance in his brief appearance as the infamous Authorised Officer on the train, opposite Eva Seymour's heartbreaking portrayal of the young mother at the end of her rope. A profound silence fell over the audience during their moment on opening night, a mark of both extraordinary skill and the justice done to the work by director and actors alike.

Moments like these are expertly punctuated with Irine Vela's music, performed by Jenny M. Thomas and Dan Witton. The compositions are never merely a transitional accompaniment between scenes but a character of the piece. Ruci Kaisila's vocals are also simply sensational. Kaisila gives a masterclass in stage presence, juxtaposing her rich and fulfilling voice with a wily subtlety throughout.

If their first work articulated the shared anxieties of the end of the twentieth century, then these creatives have succeeded again at being the voice of many in a new century. An incredibly moving collection of stories and struggles, Anthem truly is the sequel we needed. It will challenge your habits and opinions in all the right ways whilst giving a voice to those who need it most. Hopefully more Australians will get the opportunity to see this performance after its limited run at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, which really should be sold out. If you're looking to see something compelling, authentic, and necessary then Anthem is it.

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From This Author Victoria Beal