Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Irrational Anthem

13 February 2020

With great writers, fine actors and so much to recommend it, David Zampatti is riveted by Anthem, until…

Review: Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas, Anthem ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 12 February 2020 ·
Reviewed by David Zampatti ·

They say the platypus is a creature designed by a committee. That could also describe Anthem, the sprawling, strident, profane collection of stories set on trains and stations across Melbourne.

Its “committee” is four prominent writers, Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas, with composer Irine Vela.

This collective worked together 23 years ago to create Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? for the now-defunct Melbourne Workers’ Theatre. The play has become an enduring icon of political theatre in Australia.

I saw a memorable production of Working Class in 2011, performed by the students of WAAPA’s Aboriginal theatre course, and am reminded of a line in my review of it relating to the awful fate that befalls two of its characters: “The greater, unforgivable, tragedy is that, like Brueghel’s expensive, delicate ship, the wide, complacent world will sail on past the disasters it chooses to ignore.” In my notes watching Anthem, I write: “Brueghel’s Icarus.”

Once again, in Anthem, Bovell, Cornelius, Reeves and Tsiolkas reserve their greatest outrage for our indifference to the everyday tragedies – of birth, of ethnicity, of upbringing, of gender, of desertion, of blind law and the savage power of money.

Anthem is constructed in four parts that entwine through the performance. In Bovell’s “Uncensored”, a chorus of commuters air their complaints and fears in a cyclical chant.

Reeves’ wildly hilarious “A Chemist Warehouse … A Love Story” is part Bonnie and Clyde, part Thelma and Louise, but more a fleshing out of the story of Ringo and Yolanda, the hapless restaurant robbers in Pulp Fiction. Sahil Saluia is great as the would-be gunman Loki, and Erin Jean Norvill steals the show as the ditzily psychopathic Lisa.

Cornelius’s double-barrelled heartbreaker, “Terror”, is a wrenching descent into desperation. A once-wealthy woman (Maude Davey), now deserted and destitute, seeks help from her former cleaning lady (Amanda Ma), who despises her. A young mother (the brutally accurate Eva Seymour) flails wildly as her precarious life is swamped by mundane circumstances.

Maude Davery, left, plays a now destitute woman who appeals for help to her former cleaning lady, played by Amanda Ma. Photo: Sarah Walker

In the centrepiece of the play, Tsiolkas’s “Brothers and Sisters”, three marginalised Indigenous siblings, Joella (the adamantine Carly Sheppard), Cam (Reef Ireland) and Malik (Osamah Sami), await the return from France of their successful brother, Jamie (Thuso Lekwape), bearing a gift that might be a Trojan Horse.

The writers people their stories with memorable characters: a conservative Greek couple (Maria Mercedes and Tony Nikolakopoulos), a belligerent, full-throated busker (Ruci Kaisila), Malik’s pained train conductor. We don’t know them, but we know people like them.

Vela’s music (she is also the production’s music director and sound designer) supports and punctuates the action superbly, mostly courtesy of the bassist Dan Witton and violinist Jenny M. Thomas, who take up spots around Marg Horwell’s authentic, flexible set. The lighting (Paul Jackson) is convincingly austere, and Susie Dee’s direction of both the cast and production elements is point-precise.

So much of the writing is gripping and powerful – there are many moments when you can sense the audience sitting bolt upright. Its language rings true, even when, as in “A Chemist Warehouse”, it’s been taken way over the top. The acting is faultless and often rises to great heights, and the denouement – a body on the tracks who might be any of the characters, there for any number of reasons – is dramatically logical and painful to contemplate.

If only it stopped there. The final two scenes expose the brittleness of Anthem‘s method and the execution of its intent.

The first may be excusable, despite its gratuitous crudity, but the last, a return to the opening scene with Jamie on the Eurostar conversing with a fellow passenger about Brexit, neoliberalism and the value of protest genuinely shocks me with its banality and its irrelevance to the play, political, dramatic or otherwise.

It is as if someone has pulled the bottom card from a house of them, and it makes me question the cohesion of the whole edifice.

Coming as it does at the end of a performance with so much to recommend it, it still leaves me, a day later, bewildered and disappointed.

Anthem continues at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 16 February 2020, as part of Perth Festival.

Pictured top: In a scene from ‘Anthem’ are, from left, Reef Ireland, Osamah Sami, and Carly Sheppard. Photo: Sarah Walker

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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