Celia-Pacquola.Sam-Longley.Geoff-Kelso.-Rob-Johnson.The-Torrents-image-credit-Philip-Gostelow
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

An unforgettable tale for our times

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company, The Torrents ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, June 19 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

It’s like finding an old, forgotten watch buried under a pile of junk in an attic and discovering, against all odds, that it was keeping perfect time.

That’s The Torrents. A neglected play only performed once in the 64 years since it was written, gathering dust while decades of Australian drama and generations of Australian audiences rolled past it, heedless.

It’s a sad neglect. While Oriel Gray’s melodrama about a small town newspaper turned upside down by the arrival of a talented, forthright woman to join its unconsciously all-male staff (unconscious because it had never occurred to any of them that there might ever be a female in a newsroom) is not a great play, it is certainly a very good one, and getting better, and more pertinent, all the time.

The best news of all is that Black Swan and Sydney Theatre Company have done it justice, with clear, accurate direction by Clare Watson, a beautifully lived-in set by Renée Mulder, some tasty incidental music by Joe Paradise Lui and a seasoned and perfectly-chosen cast, highlighted by a splendid performance from Celia Pacquola as the disruptive J. G. (Jenny) Milford.

Celia Pacquola
Celia Pacquola gives a splendid performance as J.G. Milford in ‘The Torrents’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

It’s the 1890s in a place called Koolgalla (that might be Kalgoorlie or one of the gold rush towns of Victoria and New South Wales). The town is prosperous, but the best days of gold are past and warning signs are beginning to appear.

A young engineer, Kingsley (Luke Carroll) – who might be C.Y. O’Connor – believes the district must irrigate to secure a farming future, even though the lure of gold still reigns in Koolgalla, and in its newspaper’s office.

The paper’s editor, Rufus Torrent (Tony Cogin), pays little attention to Kingsley’s plans, while its major investor, John Manson (Steve Rodgers) is violently opposed to them, and doesn’t mind insisting that his views are supported by the paper.

Meanwhile, Rufus’s son, Ben (Gareth Davies), is struggling with the long shadow of his kindly but overbearing father, his affectionate rather than passionate relationship with his fiancée Gwynne (Emily Rose Brennan), and the lure of Koolgalla’s pubs.

Rob Johnson, Geoff Kelso, Celia Pacquola and Tony Cogin.
It’s treacherous surf for a mere woman to wade into – but there’s nothing ‘mere’ about J.G. Milford. Pictured are Rob Johnson (Bernie), Geoff Kelso (Christy), Celia Pacquola (J.G. Milford) and Tony Cogin (Rufus Torrent) in ‘The Torrents’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

It’s a treacherous surf for a mere woman to wade into – but there’s nothing “mere” about J.G. Milford.

It was prescience rather than serendipity that saw Gray bring the three themes of the control of the media, the place of women in the workforce, and sustainability rather than resource exploitation to The Torrents. She was an active participant in the left wing politics of pre-and-post-WWII Australia and clearly had strong views on these issues… but they have never been so prominent, or pressing, as they are today.

Gray carefully avoids the soapbox, and for the most part succeeds in the effort, and that gives The Torrents considerable heft without adding too much weight.

She’s not quite as successful in her treatment of the play’s comic characters, the foreman Jock McDonald (Sam Longley), the printer Christy (Geoff Kelso) and the office apprentice Bernie (Rob Johnson), but all three are terrific comic actors and make the very best of the fairly average hands they’ve been dealt.

Gareth Davis and Emily Rose Brennan
Things work out well at the end… but there’s no conventional happy ending. Pictured are Gareth Davies (Ben) and Emily Rose Brennan (Gwynne) in ‘The Torrents’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

Things work out well in the end, but Pacquola’s J.G. Milford is too strong a woman to meekly surrender to the conventions of a happy ending.

That’s what makes her such a memorable character, and it’s what makes The Torrents, finally and deservedly, an unforgettable Australian play.

Postscript: After a short Perth season The Torrents transfers to the Sydney Opera House for a six-week engagement, and by all accounts it’s breaking records for advance sales. That’s a feather in the cap for Oriel Gray and her legacy, and also for Black Swan State Theatre Company, and its artistic director Clare Watson, at a time of considerable concern about its direction.

The Torrents plays until June 30.

Pictured top: Celia Pacquola, Sam Longley, Geoff Kelso and Rob Johnson in ‘The Torrents’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

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News, Performing arts, Theatre

Mixing the moguls and the maestros

Business and arts leaders pose creative ways to boost WA culture and the economy but Mark Naglazas finds it is a fraught path to success.

The arts and business communities have long been locked in a marriage of convenience. The impoverished bride is happy to walk down the aisle with any almost suitor with desire for a bit of culture so long as they have deep pockets; the cashed-up groom, on the other hand, is elevated in everyone’s eyes by the class act at their side.

The two communities engaged in a public courting ritual at the Hyatt on Tuesday morning (or, more accurately, a round of speed dating) during a breakfast hosted by Business News and ScreenWest and presided over by the Marriage Broker-in-Chief, Culture and Arts Minister David Templeman.

Interestingly, the minister and other members of the creative community on the panel did not focus on their need for money but came out fighting, reminding their cousins in the business sector they are a major contributor to the Australian economy, especially when it comes to attracting tourists. It was more of a case of you need us more that we need you.

“We know that visitors to Australia now are more likely to engage with arts and culture than they are to visit wineries, casinos or even attend sporting events. We need to maximise that opportunity,” said Mr Templeman, suggesting that it is now high time for Western Australia to shift its economic focus from the resources to creativity.

Mr Templeman’s call to arms was following by a similarly stirring speech from Ben Elton, who reiterated the minister’s point that the creative sector should not be regarded as a penurious relative always shaking the begging bowl but a dynamic part of a booming global industry.

“The creative arts are clearly a money-making proposition,” Elton said. “If we can get a successful (creative) industry – and we are a long way from being there – in the long run the benefits won’t just be cultural. They will be financial.”

Naturally, Elton’s focus was on film and television, which he believes presents enormous opportunities in the age of streaming. Companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney, who will soon launch their own streaming services, are craving content, the comedy legend said, so it is not a question of benevolence on the part of investors but a chance to make big bucks.

Elton, however, is not so naïve as to believe Western Australia can compete on the global stage without government intervention. “It has to be hand-in-hand with public investment and a public initiative to support Australian arts. Without infrastructure – and infrastructure is very expensive – we are not going to get business to join hands (with us),” said Elton, who threw his weight behind the long-standing fight for a movie studio.

Chamber of Arts and Culture WA executive director Shelagah Magadza kept the rhetoric to a minimum and drilled down on the impossibility of forging a relationship between arts and business without up-to-the-minute data and a sound strategy that considers the arts in a broader educational, social and economic context.

Ms Magadza likened the current situation trying to swing a Datsun 120Y engine into an electric vehicle. “We need a long-term plan in which it’s clearly articulated what needs to happen – where the investment and skills development need to go for artists who want to take advantage of the opportunities that people like Ben (Elton) are creating in the state,” she said.

Interestingly, Tuesday’s breakfast confab about the relationship between business and the arts was taking place on the same morning that The Australian’s fearless, highly respected Victoria Laurie published a piece about the dangers of the business world climbing into bed with the arts.

Laurie zeroed in on the practice of stacking the boards of arts organisations with people who have no direct experience of working in that particular art, causing as much of a problem if it was the other way around, that is, practitioner-heavy boards.

Laurie sought comment from former Australia Council chairwoman and Musica Viva board member Margaret Seares, who cautions against adopting the American model of appointing wealthy donors to boards.

“If you’re putting money into something, what power and leverage should that give you? It’s a debate we haven’t had but it needs to be discussed. For any company to have no one on the board with an arts background, or one lone voice, is as dangerous as having only arts practitioners,” Professor Seares was quoted as saying.

Laurie’s piece is a continuation of her investigation of the ugly situation at Black Swan State Theatre Company, in which the board, headed by high-profile philanthropist Nicola Forrest, removed the company’s executive Natalie Jenkins and replaced her with a recently-appointed board member with no performing arts industry experience.

Among those who’ve also expressed concern about the abrupt exit of Ms Jenkins is Black Swan’s founding patron Janet Holmes à Court. “I’m extremely disappointed that Black Swan seems to be turning out to be the sort of company that Andrew Ross and myself and Duncan Ord and the others who were involved in founding in 1991 did not have in mind,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.

So it was disappointing that Mrs Holmes à Court did not attend the State of the Arts in Business event, where she had originally been billed to appear on the panel. In doing so, she avoided any awkward encounter with Minderoo CEO Andrew Hagger, who was there in place of Mrs Forrest.

Still it was hard not to contain an ironic smile when Mr Hagger said that “when you have partners working together that’s when you get great outcomes” while our ears are still ringing with the news that Ms Jenkins, one of the State’s most experienced and respected arts administrators, had been moved on after falling out with a board headed by a major private sector funder.

There was a buzz in the Hyatt Ballroom during and after breakfast – the arts crowd certainly comes alive in the presence of money. Much of that discussion was focused on the benefits and needs for the two communities to work together and less about the issues raised by those relationships, such as the freedom of arts companies to criticise industries from which they’re benefiting.

The backbeat, of course, is the overall decline of government funding for the arts. Organisations such as ScreenWest (now reconstituted as a not-for-profit) are on the hunt for private investment so in the future that marriage of convenience will take on air of urgency. Minister Templeman may have to get out his shotgun.

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A scene from Water, featuring Glenda Linscott. Amy Mathews. Emily Rose Brennan. Richard Maganga
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

The perils of polemic

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, Water ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

As we all come to grips with the most pressing issue of our age – humanity’s impact on our planet – it’s only fitting that this theme makes its way onto our stages. As is often the case, theatre is miles ahead of cinema or TV in grappling with this topic – it’s hard to make art that reflects our growing concern, while not straying too far into the boredom of strident polemic. So far, at least, it’s been left to theatre to press the case.

With Water, Melbourne-based playwright Jane Bodie has created a work for Black Swan State Theatre Company that is as ambitious as it is broad-ranging. Set in three different time periods and places, the play examines two of Australia’s thorniest political challenges – climate politics and refugees.

The first and strongest act is set on Molloy Island off WA’s Southwest in the not too distant future. Water has become scarce, birds have all but died out and food rationing is in place. We meet Peter (Igor Sas), a disgraced politician, recently forced to resign over his handling of refugee policy; his wife, Beth (Glenda Linscott) and the couple’s daughters Gemma (Amy Mathews) and Joey (Emily Rose Brennan). Gemma, a corporate lawyer, and Joey, a hippy traveller, have returned to the family’s holiday home to celebrate Peter’s birthday. Joey has been travelling for years and, as with all prodigal offspring, her return is cause for joy, dampened slightly by the fact that she has invited along a friend (and African immigrant), Yize (Richard Maganga).

A scene from 'Water', set in a holiday home on Molloy Island.
An undercurrent of tension: Igor Sas (Peter), Glenda Linscott (Beth) and Amy Mathews(Gemma) in the first act of ‘Water’. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

Bodie begins slowly, casting out small measures of narrative and context that makes the play an enjoyable tease for half of the first act. Why exactly did Peter leave politics? Why is Beth so on edge? Why does Gemma seem so irritated? What are Joey’s motives in inviting Yize? Director Emily McLean paces the show beautifully, creating an undercurrent of tension that is bound to explode. She is aided in this effort by a gorgeous soundscape and score from Clint Bracknell. Beginning with the clatter of parrots, an echo of a more bountiful time, Water is notable for its aural sparseness. We feel the absence of the birds, just as we feel the absence of water. The silence at the show’s beginning builds via stilted conversation, elongated pauses, until finally – with a remarkable soliloquy from Yize – the dam bursts. Maganga’s performance here was so impassioned, so utterly authentic, that it was followed by spontaneous applause from the packed house.

But, despite the talent of the actors, Water is a deeply flawed work. For a contemporary piece written by a female playwright, the raft of characters is alarmingly cliched. We have the absent poli dad; the long-suffering, needy wife; the wild, irresponsible daughter and the corporate careerist. I understand the seduction of writing about characters we are familiar with – there’s little an audience enjoys more than seeing itself reflected onstage – but for a new work, these roles seemed all too predictable. Of course the roguish daughter is there to cause trouble! Of course the corporate careerist is secretly unhappy! In writing such broad caricatures, Bodie underestimates the capacity of her audience to comprehend something more nuanced.

A scene from 'Water'. A nurse examines a patient's throat.
Bodie takes the audience to Ellis Island in 1921. Pictured are Amy Mathews and Glenda-Linscott. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

By the end of the first act though, we are engaged. We know these people, we care about them. Minor irritations like the distraction of Gemma’s resignation can be overlooked in favour of the over-riding pull of any good story – what happens next? But, in an ill-advised attempt to underscore the injustice of Australia’s refugee policy, the next act deprives us of this satisfaction. Instead, Bodie takes us to Ellis Island in 1921 where an elderly white Australian couple is attempting to emigrate to the United States. By drawing an apt but facile comparison with immigration systems elsewhere, Bodie again underestimates her audience. Her point was already made with stirring eloquence through the vessel of Yize – the clunky comparison doesn’t make the point stronger, it weakens it.

Similarly, when we are then transported to Queensland in 1905 in a brief reference to the slave trade that supplied the labour for Australia’s cane plantations, I had no idea where we were or why. Compounding the confusion is Bodie’s decision to use similar names for the characters in each setting. But what happened to the people on Molloy Island? When, finally, the playwright brings us briefly back to the characters of the first act, we are left without any meaningful resolution.

By divorcing us from the characters of the first act, Bodie sacrifices audience enjoyment to belabour her point – our climate policies are failing; our refugee policies are inhumane; we are not learning from history. As someone who agrees wholeheartedly with Bodie’s politics, it pains me to see this sort of didacticism onstage. Making theatre with a political message is extremely difficult; making theatre with a political message while avoiding the perils of polemic is even harder.

Water plays until May 26.

Pictured top are (L-R): Glenda Linscott (Beth), Amy Mathews (Gemma), Emily Rose Brennan (Joey) and Richard Maganga (Yize). Photo: Daniel J Grant.

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A woman is striking a pose. A man is dancing.
News, Reviews, Theatre

A call for belonging

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, You Know We Belong Together ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, 21 March ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

From the moment she welcomes us to the theatre, performer and writer Julia Hales has us in the palm of her hand. This is the encore season of her work You Know We Belong Together, created with director Clare Watson and writer and associate director Finn O’Branagáin. A co-production by Black Swan State Theatre Company, Perth Festival and Dadaa, You Know We Belong Together had its first outing at last year’s Perth Festival. In recognition, no doubt, of the success of the 2018 iteration, the show has moved upstairs into the Heath Ledger Theatre in 2019, with a run three times the length of the original.

Described in the programme as a “live documentary”, You Know We Belong Together is based around a series of vignettes comprised of monologues, filmed interviews, sketches and chats. With Hales at it centre, the work is driven by her dreams: to find love, and to be on the long-running television show Home and Away.

A woman sits at a coffee table another woman dances. In the background is a projection of a train station.
“When I dance I feel like myself”: Lauren Marchbank dances as Julia Hales looks on. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

But there’s more to this show than personal aspirations. You Know We Belong Together is a passionate call for inclusivity for people with disability, in particular on stage and screen. A woman with Down syndrome, Hales gives us an insight into her life and the lives of some of her friends with Down syndrome. We meet dancer Lauren Marchbank, who moves with loose-limbed release; Joshua Bott, whose dance-style is all about funk; Tina Fielding, a performer and palm-reader who’s always up for a laugh; the gentle Patrick Carter, whose talents lie in both performing and visual arts; and Mark and Melissa Junor, who met at a dance class and have been happily married for almost 19 years.

A woman standing in front of a portrait of herself. Both have their arms extended up and out.
Julia Hales. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

And then there’s Hales, who manages the show with warmth, humour and sensitivity, whether interviewing her friends about love or taking us on a guided tour of her life. Though she keeps us giggling with her references to Summer Bay and its residents (cleverly supported by Tyler Hill’s set design), she doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. We learn of her struggles, as a young adult, to come to terms with the fact that she is a person with Down syndrome, and her ongoing grief for her late mother. It’s honest, poignant and, most importantly, relatable.

And so when she asks why we don’t see people with Down syndrome on shows like Home and Away, the injustice of this absence is striking. Why, indeed?

Together with the creative team and cast, Hales, O’Branagáin and Watson have brought to the stage an engaging work that quietly but firmly lets us know, it’s time for change.

It’s a message everyone should hear.

You Know We Belong Together runs until March 31. 

Pictured top are Julia Hales and Joshua Bott. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

A woman stands with her hands clasped over her heart.
Julia Hales manages the show with warmth, humour and sensitivity. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.
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A man and a woman on a balcony, with a neon sign behind them
News, Perth Festival, Reviews, Theatre

Something to be proud of

Black Swan State Theatre Company, Our Town ·
State Theatre Centre of WA Courtyard, 10 February ·
Review by Claire Trolio ·

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town has come to Perth under the watchful eye of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s artistic director Clare Watson. This season of Wilder’s 1938 work is one of ten local productions under the Made in WA banner in Wendy Martin’s fourth and final Perth Festival programme: a line-up that champions the wealth of creative talent in our own backyard.

Although set in the fictional American town of Grover’s Corner, Our Town has maintained appeal the world over for the last eight decades because of its lasting relevance. The minutiae of the day-to-day and the themes of life, love and death are universal and timeless.

But Black Swan’s production provides an extra layer of relatability for its home-town audience. It’s intrinsically linked to our city.

Watson has cast Ian Michael, a Nyoongar man, in the lead role of Stage Manager in this metatheatrical piece. Addressing the audience and carrying the narrative with grace and a dash of cheekiness – as well as playing one of the characters – Michael has a charming stage presence that’s impossible not to enjoy.

Michael is one of three professional actors in Our Town, alongside Shari Sebbens as the stoic Mrs Gibbs and Abbie-lee Lewis as the delightful Emily. To make up the rest of the cast, Watson has invited members of the local community to share the stage. The milkman and his horse Bessie are played by your friendly Uber Eats courier and his bicycle, ice cream sodas are delivered by the conveniently located Chico Gelato. A local doctor, undertaker and priest fill those roles… and so on. There’s a danger of wooden acting and dull dialogue but instead, the community members shine, adding a realness (and a heap of fun) that does justice to Watson’s ambitious vision.

Given Our Town‘s famously stark set – an Australian souvenir tea towel is both an Antipodean touch  and a rare prop – the weight of the play sits even more firmly than usual on the shoulders of the performers, heightening Watson’s risk… but it works.

As I sat outside in the State Theatre Centre Courtyard, the summer night feeling like a warm blanket around my shoulders and the sounds of Northbridge in the background, I couldn’t have been anywhere else in the world. And I wouldn’t want to be, either. Our Town might be about every town, but this production is ours, and it’s something to be proud of.

Our Town plays the State Theatre Courtyard until February 23.

Picture top: Ian Michael and Shayani Galhenage. Photo: Daniel J. Grant.

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Fully Sikh
Calendar, October 19, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: Fully Sikh

10 – 27 October @ The State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company
and Barking Gecko Theatre Company ·

Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa shot to fame in Australia and around the world with her poetry on Australia’s Got Talent. But before she went viral, Sukhjit was a brown, hairy Sikh girl growing up in the suburbs of Perth.

Fully Sikh is her story. The show is a hilarious and heartfelt poetic procession through Sukhjit’s life, her family and her faith, all told with her trademark lyrical flow. Fully Sikh will be a sensory feast for audiences, full of music, dance, poetry and food. As the first Aussie Sikh story to hit our stages, this is unique and unmissable.

Suitability: 12+

Book via www.bsstc.com.au

More info:
www.bsstc.com.au/plays/fully-sikh
www.facebook.com/BlackSwanStateTheatreCompany
twitter.com/blackswanstc
instagram.com/blackswanstc/
vimeo.com/blackswanstc

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Black is the New White
Calendar, Performing arts, September 19, Theatre

Theatre: Black is the New White

11 – 22 September @ The State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Black Swan presents A Sydney Theatre Company Production ·

Black is The New White by Nakkiah Lui

Prepare to be enthralled by a razor sharp romantic comedy that blends Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Meet the Fockers. At the centre is Charlotte Gibson, a lawyer with a brilliant career ahead of her. As her father Ray says, she could be the next female Indigenous Waleed Aly.

But she has other ideas. First of all, it’s Christmas. Second of all, she’s in love. The thing is, her fiancé, Francis Smith, is not what her family expected – he’s unemployed, he’s an experimental composer … and he’s white! Inviting him and his conservative parents to Christmas is a bold move that has all sorts of unintended consequences.

Adult themes, nudity
Suitability: 16+

Book via www.bsstc.com.au 

More info:
www.bsstc.com.au/plays/black-is-the-new-white
www.facebook.com/BlackSwanStateTheatreCompany
twitter.com/blackswanstc
instagram.com/blackswanstc/
vimeo.com/blackswanstc

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Medea
August 19, Calendar, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: Medea

8 – 25 August @ The State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company &
WA Youth Theatre Company ·

This new adaptation of Medea, co-written by Anne Sarks and WA’s own Kate Mulvany, puts one of history’s most notorious family breakdowns under the microscope. Locked in their bedroom, two brothers play games to pass the time, as siblings do. Off-stage, their parents are having a very famous showdown. At an inevitable moment, the children will be drawn away from their games and into their parents’ bitter argument. From there, they will enter mythology as the most tragic siblings of all time.

Adult themes

Book via  www.bsstc.com.au

More info:
www.bsstc.com.au/plays/medea
www.facebook.com/BlackSwanStateTheatreCompany
twitter.com/blackswanstc
instagram.com/blackswanstc/
vimeo.com/blackswanstc

 

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The Torrents
Calendar, June 19, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: The Torrents

15 – 30 June @ The State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company & Sydney Theatre Company ·

It’s the 1890s in the Goldfields. J.G. Milford has hopped off the train in the small town of Koolgalla to take on a job at the local paper. She’s smart, she’s savvy, she’s incredibly qualified, but nobody knew the J stood for Jenny! Oriel Gray’s The Torrents is a newsroom comedy that rivals George Bernard Shaw. Jenny’s arrival coincides with a trailblazing engineer’s outrageous idea to bring irrigation to the community and debate rages about whether the town should give up mining for a more sustainable economic future.

Adult themes: Suitability 12+

Book via www.bsstc.com.au

More info:
www.bsstc.com.au/plays/the-torrents
www.facebook.com/BlackSwanStateTheatreCompany
twitter.com/blackswanstc
instagram.com/blackswanstc/
vimeo.com/blackswanstc

 

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Water
Calendar, May 19, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: Water

9 – 26 May @ State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company ·

Water by Jane Bodie begins in Western Australia in the not-too-distant future, where we meet with a once powerful politician about to celebrate his birthday at the family’s island home – a retreat from the world that has clearly seen better days. There’s no water in the taps, there are no birds in the sky and to top it off, an unexpected guest arrives for dinner.

WARNING: Adult themes

Book via www.bsstc.com.au

More info:
www.bsstc.com.au/plays/water

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