BWW Review: ANTHEM at Perth Festival
Anthem is a new collaborative work by the same team of writers who came together to mark the ten-year anniversary of Melbourne Workers Theatre by creating a piece called Who's Afraid of the Working Class? The current show, co-commissioned by Perth Festival amongst others, explores the current state of social affairs in Australia, centring its narrative on race and class conflict. The writers, Melissa Reeves, Andrew Bovell, Christos Tsiolkas, Patricia Cornelius and Irine Vela (composer), attempt to capture what it means to be Australian in 2020, and the results are, as one would expect, varied.
The show opens with a man and a woman (Thuso Lekwape and Eryn Jean Norvill) sitting opposite each other on a train (situated in an upper level of the set) in the Chunnel between France and England. The train has come to a standstill, so the two strangers begin to speculate about the nature of the delay, and from there, they enter into a socio-political debate. The scene is somewhat tedious in its dialectical nature, and had me worried that we would be in for two hours of characters delivering rhetoric at each other.
Thankfully this was not the case. The entire ensemble enters the stage proper and delivers a kind of chorus-style introduction to the main body of the work. Ruci Kaisila makes her way front and centre with a sonorous rendition of "Waltzing Matilda" wearing shades and shaking a metal tin, asking for coins from unwilling and unsympathetic train passengers. She makes several appearances throughout the piece, always in song, and demanding in short, sharp tones after each one, "PAY UP!" Her voice is resonant, precise, and warm, filling up the theatre.
Various members of the cast break away for more intimate scenes, many of which have through-lines throughout the play. One is a young couple (Eryn Jean Norvill and Sahil Salujah) who engage in a funny Bonnie-and-Clyde style caper against corporations who steal wages from workers. Amanda Ma and Maude Davey pair up as a former housekeeper and now destitute divorcee, respectively, meeting on the train after many years have passed and the tables have turned. A trio of rambunctious youngsters (Carly Sheppard, Osamah Sami and Reef Ireland) go head-to-head with a Greek couple (Maria Mecedes and Tony Nikolakopoulos) and nearly come to blows with a white working-class woman (Maude Davey), who all argue over whose country Australia is. The trio is also part of the overarching narrative that we are introduced to in the opening scene - a young man (Thuso Lekwape) is making his way home to Melbourne from France to help his three younger, poor siblings, whom he wants to lift up financially with the caveat that they educate themselves. Eva Seymour plays a poor single mother with uncanny accuracy and pathos; she also occasionally runs through the stage with Reef Ireland at her heels in a lover's chase that suddenly turns abusive.
The set design my Marg Horwell is a bit problematic for me - there are three platforms mounted with rectangular benches whose tops can be flipped up to resemble train seats. They are shifted on hidden casters by the performers during scene breaks by metal poles embedded in the platform used to steer. This reconfiguration does little to serve the drama, so I'm not sure why it's done; unnecessary set shifting is one of my theatre bugbears, as it can waste a lot of valuable stage time and disrupt the show's momentum. There is a duo (Jenny M. Thomas on fiddle and Dan Witton on double bass) who stays upstage playing music throughout. They're actually the first performers to enter the stage at the top of the show though they don't even make a sound until the first scene is finished, which feels like an odd directorial choice.
The overarching storyline of the prodigal son coming home to offer a well-intentioned but patronising bribe to his three siblings feels the least truthful amongst all the different stories being told in Anthem, which I think hurts the work's overall impact. It feels contrived and overwrought, even in comparison to the almost slapstick-y Bonnie and Clyde story; it's ponderous and isn't given enough air time to find the right tone. The show ends back where it started, with a dialectical debate in a train car, which really feels like the air being let out of a nice full balloon. Nevertheless, you couldn't ask for a better ensemble of accomplished and skilled actors to perform this piece; they give solid, nuanced performances from go to whoa.
Anthem runs from 12 - 16 February 2020 at the Heath Ledger Theatre.