What an exhilarating thing it is to see the Melbourne International Arts Festival, that haven of modern dance and all its mutations, mount an ambitious piece of Australian drama. Anthem is the successor to Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? and it reunites five dramatic talents – Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Irine Vela and Christos Tsiolkas – in a dynamic, beautifully orchestrated and powerfully moving ensemble piece that makes you wonder what on earth we are and what we’ve come to as a nation.
It does it with lightning flashes of colour and movement and with a cast that ranges from Eryn Jean Norvill, as a creamy middle-classer and more stridently as a hectic bogan with some kind of gun, to masterly old-timers Maria Mercedes and Tony Nikolakopoulos, who are testaments to the fact that whatever damaged glory of a Western civilisation we have stretches back to the amphitheatre. Ruci Kaisila sings some of the traditional laments of yearning that make up parts of whatever our true anthem is – “Waltzing Matilda”, “Amazing Grace” – but that fierce barracking cry of “We’re from Tigerland”, fresh from AFL grand final glory, is also used with immense power and poignancy.
Anthem is a superb piece of theatre. It’s full of fizz but sombre in its overall arch, a moody delight to the eye and ear that also fills you with pity and wonder. Everyone who hasn’t should rush to the final few performances.
Twenty years on, a further animation of the travails of working people always had a good chance of being a winner with these writers: Bovell, who wrote Lantana and adapted The Secret River; Cornelius, who is looking more and more like the biggest kind of dramatist, recently adapting Lorca; and Christos Tsiolkas, who has passed from the raw energy of his early fiction to the effortless drama and humane perspective of his more recent work, and who is about to publish a novel about St Paul. What richer trio could you want for a collaborative celebration that was also, as anthems are, bound to be a song of war as well as a song of lament.
Much of Anthem is set on a train, that most democratic window into society and its discontents. Bovell has apparently been the shaping hand of the choruses of shouted invective and Reeve the movement of a plot that encompasses the abuses of the big, brutal franchises such as 7-Eleven and Chemist Warehouse. Cornelius concentrates on the fierce contestations between women, and Tsiolkas on an ethnically diverse family passionately surveying the tatters of its sibling bonds.
But Anthem is not three plays. It is a superb melding of a world of drama and incident, full of moodiness and residual hilarity, even though tension at any point can flare like a knife, fire like a gun.
There is indeed a sustained bit of black comedy in which Norvill and Sahil Saluja hold a group of characters captive – with a starting pistol, no less – and the writing has a wonderful breadth and momentum. This is the kind of play that justifies people who say, “If you want to see Australian drama with balls look to the Fringe”, even though Anthem is paradoxically a mainstream event in a showcase of artiness.
So it should be. Initially you have to cope with the shrillness and stridency of the endless shrieking about money and exploitation and with your own apprehension that you’re going to cop a pile of left-wing platitudes beaten to a pulp. But then you readjust as the complexity of the truths on show hit home. The upper-middle-class woman (Maude Davey) has exploited her Asian cleaning lady (Amanda Ma), but then we see them in reverse: memsahib bankrupt and full of abject emotional need. There is also a wonderfully wry satirical skit between them about the respective glories of Noosa and Surfers Paradise. It brings to the surface all the dormant class consciousness and self-consciousness of an Australian audience that is liable never to know how much pride it takes and how much shame it feels in the midst of a working class it half identifies with and half despises and shuns.
A country settled by convicts, by famine escapees, by refugees of every kind, is likely to cleave to a myth of egalitarianism even as the prospect of plenty (or the phantom) annihilates any equality of opportunity. Anthem toys with this brilliantly while also investing in the great well of anger and outrage that is bound to be at least a memory in a country with one of the most developed union traditions in the history of the world.
It’s remarkable, though, the way Anthem evades the sentimentalism of its own occasion by constantly presenting the up-against-it predicaments of working people with a caricatured Australian ugliness that makes us back away even as we recognise that this is all intimately familiar because they’re all just a bit like… well, like us.
There’s a scene in which a young woman played by Eva Seymour is taken to task by a ticket inspector because there is no money on her travel card. Seymour is wonderful in her contorted beauty and desolation. She is in the direst possible straits financially, she has a young son with asthma and she wheedles with the ticket inspector (Osamah Sami), a mild man wanting to do no harm, who nevertheless takes understandable offence at the vituperative fury of the racist abuse her desperation makes her hurl at him.
In complex contradictory ways, we’re on her side, and Seymour acts like a goddess – which by a familiar paradox of dialectic makes us reach for a sphere of aesthetics this play is constantly questioning. But as theatre this scene has a terrific impact that takes the breath away. It also persuades you in one stroke that Seymour as she falls, all but tragically, as this bereft character, could do anything as an actress. Cast her as Viola, cast her as Electra.
But Anthem is a superb piece of ensemble theatre. Tony Nikolakopoulos has an effortless authority that gives a depth to everything around him. He can do the comedy of wheedling human exploitation, the terror of death and then the spectre of dire political persecution. Maria Mercedes brings together, with the authority of a lifetime, the Nazi oppression of the Jews and the calamities of modern Greece.
Of course, Ruci Kaisila sings “I Still Call Australia Home” with a devastating edge because this is a play – this threaded anthology of self-parodying ironies – that testifies at every point to the range of the national cultural mix as well as the unifying monolithic nature of an oppression that is and isn’t grounded in class.
Yes, this show is constantly enlivening, it tingles with energy and it is also heavy with the sense that every human predicament is its own cross even if the portals that reveal crucifixion are as varied as the sea.
There is the story told – as memorably as any Greek chorus – of the guy at the railway station, singing the anthem of the Richmond Football Club. There is the train that brings people together, and there is the train as a symbol as old as Anna Karenina of what happens when a soul consumed by despair just asks for society to run it down.
All the facets of life are on show in Anthem. In the fantastically mixed brood of siblings, there is the one who lives in Paris and has made big money. But when Thuso Lekwape stands on the stage, elevated but alone, he too sings “… Tigerland” and we know that he has nowhere to lay his head. He represents a predicament Australia will give no home to.
It is, in fact, pretty remarkable that Bovell, Cornelius, Tsiolkas, Irine Vela and Melissa Reeves have put together a kind of compilation of laughter and pain that is greater than the sum of its parts. You can argue that some of the acting is broad and rough, that some of the writing edges towards pamphleteering, and yet Anthem always has its glaze of irony, its window on derision and its pathway to compassion. Susie Dee’s direction is consistently expert and Vela’s music always does the trick. I cannot recommend Anthem too highly.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "Portrait of a nation". Subscribe here.