Review: Wake In Fright (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 11 – 15, 2020
Playwright: Declan Greene with Zahra Newman (adapted from the novel by Kenneth Cook)
Director: Declan Greene
Cast: Zahra Newman
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Included in the price of entry, are a pair of earplugs. There are some loud noises in the production that delicate members of the audience might want to shield themselves from, but symbolically, they are a sarcastic dig at our Australian propensity to shut out any discussion about race that goes too close to the bone. Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake In Fright is re-framed by director Declan Greene and performer Zahra Newman, so that the classic gothic horror becomes an apparatus that exposes the anxiety of the white man on this colonised land. School teacher John is trapped in a country town, where he encounters a string of dubious characters determined to inflict degradation, using alcohol and other vices, so that he turns into one of them, over the course of a weekend.

More than a tall poppy story, this reiteration of Wake In Fright is about Western masculinity’s relentless need for destruction. The Indigenous have long disappeared from fictitious Bundanyabba, but the carnage continues, now with European settlers exerting their irrepressible barbarism onto themselves. Having once been a scary movie, this bleak tale is again given the genre treatment, with outstanding work by Verity Hampson on light and projections, alongside James Paul’s thrilling sound design and Melbourne duo friendships’ intuitive music, providing eerie and meaningful discombobulation to our experience of the show. Although not frightening in a sensorial manner that films are notoriously capable of, director Greene certainly conveys powerfully, the fearsome quality of this dark tale. Aussie larrikins gone wild are not to be toyed with.

The exceptional Newman is breathtaking in her one-woman show, unforgettable for delivering extraordinary complexity with what could have been a simple story. She has us on the edge of our seats for the show’s entirety, keeping our minds active with the many dimensions and depths that she alchemizes on stage. It is noteworthy that this version of Wake In Fright works particularly well with a woman of colour at its helm. Newman’s gender and skin are constant cues that prevent us from forgetting about the masculinity and whiteness that are central to the catastrophe unfolding.

The earbuds remain a personal choice. Many will choose to ignore the obvious, because much of the power of the status quo relies on its ability to keep us feeling debilitated. It also succeeds at misleading many into insisting that the problems with society are about deficient individuals, and not the overarching systems that govern us. It is no coincidence that the horrors that overwhelm John are imposed by people who fit a particular description. We need to learn to see patterns, and form understandings that will help us in more substantive ways, than to replace bad eggs in structures that will never accommodate good ones. The outback town in Wake In Fright is sick, but we fear the overhaul that is required, and choose instead to let it languish in perpetual revulsion.

www.malthousetheatre.com.au