Directed by Rick Brayford
Set and costume designer Patrick Howe
Performed by WAAPA Aboriginal Theatre students Karanata Kadarmia, Haylee Rivers, Tobiasz Millar, Jadene Croft, Paddy Ahkit, Alexandra Lane, Dimity Shillingworth and Shakira Clanton
Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA
19 – 24 November, 2011
There was a powerful and revealing moment during the curtain call on the last night of WAAPA Aboriginal Theatre’s production of Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?
As she was taking her bows, Alexandra Lane jubilantly flexed her biceps and let out a triumphant yell, which was picked up and repeated by others in the cast. It was an expression of relief and achievement, as you’d expect from kids at the end of a grueling year’s study, but, more than that, it was an affirmation of strength: the strength they’ll need as indigenous performers to pursue their ambitions in the theatre; the strength, on the evidence of this barnstorming production, they have in abundance.
Written in 1997 for the Melbourne Worker’s Theatre by some of Australia’s most highly-regarded writers, including Andrew Bovell (When the Rain Stopped Falling, Lantana, Strictly Ballroom) and Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), the play was originally a multi-ethnic story of homelessness and near-homelessness in Geoff Kennett’s Victoria; its conversion to a story of indigenous people in present-day WA is seamless and effective. Director Rick Brayford has given it an up-front, confronting reading in keeping with both its agitprop origins and its ultimate purpose to showcase the talents of its student cast. He succeeds brilliantly in both.
The story follows interwined threads of dispossession and alienation among the indigenous community: a man and woman (Paddy Ahikit and Dimmity
Shillingsworth) facing unemployment and an impossible mortgage payment struggle to maintain their dignity; two young girls (Haylee Rivers and Jadene Croft) fall into petty crime as they mimic the rich, white world they see around them; a brother and sister (Tobiasz Millar and Lane) eke out a precarious, dangerous existence on the street; a young man (Karanata Kadarmia) burgles a house, only to find its elderly occupant (Shakira Clanton) is just as poor as he is. The jaws of life close around them all.
Along the way there is humour, defiance and emotion, but ultimately, inevitably, there is tragedy. An accidental fire leaves two young people dead in the recycling bin in which they sleep, and a mother bereft. The greater, unforgivable, tragedy is that, like Breughel’s expensive, delicate ship, the wide, complacent world will sail on past the disasters it chooses to ignore.
I’m loath to single out performances from a cast who, without exception, understood perfectly what their stories were saying and how to tell them, but the extraordinary Millar, a gentle, fearsome young man with a unique stage presence, was compelling as the brother Orton, as was the electric Lane as his sister Stacey, while Clanton’s outpouring of rage and grief when she learns of her children’s death was imposing, heartbreaking and magnificent.
Words that neatly describe this play, this production and its cast.