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Renowned Australian actor Zahra Newman knows what it feels like to be an outsider. In bringing that experience to the Malthouse Theatre’s one-woman adaptation of Wake in Fright, she shines a light on discrimination and toxic masculinity in our society. “Part of the thing that is nightmarish about Wake in Fright is the culture having to stomach the reality of that reflection without just lashing out against it.” By Emily Bitto.

Actress Zahra Newman takes on Wake in Fright

Zahra Newman in Malthouse Theatre’s Wake in Fright.
Credit: Pia Johnson

“Take it from the vomit,” says the director from behind me.

“The second one?” asks Zahra Newman, from the makeshift stage, which is marked out with electrical tape and boxes of jumbo chalk.

“Yep, from the second vomit.”

Newman nods and bends over, holding a microphone up under the lee of the dark hair that hides her face. She makes again the almost-too-convincing retching noise I’ve now heard several times. She wipes her mouth and spits, stands erect and speaks into the darkness, which her performance evokes as a visceral and chilling presence. A droning soundtrack rises to a peak just short of ear-splitting and then falls away.

“No, that was way too early that time,” says the director.

 

I’m sitting in on rehearsals for the remarkable new Malthouse production of Wake in Fright, an adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s now-classic Gothic Australian novel. The performance, set against an intense and unsettling soundscape created by Melbourne electro group friendships, features Newman alone, morphing surreally between the cast of almost exclusively male characters.

Newman slips on her ugg boots for her lunchbreak and we talk about the production, and what her experiences have enabled her to bring to the performance – experiences, particularly, as a woman of colour, and as a migrant to Australia. We sit in the empty rehearsal room, and she eats a wholesome-looking salad – pumpkin and spinach with some kind of ancient grain – out of a Tupperware container. A giant fuzzy teddy-bear costume, with flat blue eyes and a lolling pink tongue, stares uncannily from behind me.

“When I got the call from Malthouse about doing [Wake in Fright],” she says, “I assumed there were other people in it. I didn’t think it was just me. And then I got a note from Declan [Greene, the show’s director] with a brief, and he was like, ‘Maybe I should tell you about my vision for the show: so, I think it should be a one-person show’, and I was like, ‘Ohh!’ 

Newman says people have been surprised by the idea of a one-woman version of the “uber-masculine” Wake in Fright, but she believes this reframing of the text has allowed something new and productive to emerge. “The book and the film are about toxic masculinity and about Australian masculinity,” she says. “[But] I think you hear things in a different way purely because they’re travelling through a female body in the space. We’re not pretending that I’m a man; I don’t become men. I’m not strapping my boobs and wearing a moustache; it’s still clearly my body. And I think by virtue of that body telling this story, you receive the ways in which versions of that masculinity can enact violence or hideousness or ugliness, or any number of things.”

Newman is credited as a co-creator of the show and is candid about the ways in which her own experiences have shaped the re-presentation of this brutal parable of Australian small-town “hospitality”. “Some of the references and jumping-off points that we have were certainly driven by my experiences as an immigrant,” she says, “and my experience here as a person who certainly isn’t looked at walking down the street as an Australian, even though I do have citizenship for the country.” She says a central theme emphasised in this production is that of the outsider: “the outsider who comes to a town that has very clear modes of operation, and how to be and how to belong, and what you need to do in order to survive, and how generous and benevolent the people of this town are to this outsider: Oh yes, we’re gonna help you, we’re gonna help you, here, have a beer, have a beer, that’s how you help yourself, just have a beer, keep drinking, yes yes yes, because that’s what we do and we’re really happy, see we’re really happy so just have a beer…

Inhabiting this persona of maniacal benevolence, Newman slips into animated satire. But there is clearly a darkness hovering just beneath it, as there is in the Yabba, the fictional town that provides the setting for Wake in Fright. It is Newman’s intention to explore this Janus-faced dimension of the Australian psyche, “the narratives that Australia tells about itself being the most multicultural nation on the planet, the most benevolent nation on the planet, and how that sits with the reality of what actually happens to people who are outsiders here”.

 

Newman was born in Jamaica and lived there until the age of 14, when she migrated to Australia with her mother. She is circumspect in describing the move, and careful to emphasise the opportunities that were “gifted” to her as a consequence of coming here. “I’d never had hot water out of a tap before,” she says. “The luxury of turning on the tap and having immediate hot water! I used to have to boil water on the stove, in a kettle, and put it in a tub, and then top it up with warm water and then use an ice-cream scoop to bathe myself.” More profoundly, the economic benefits of moving to Australia enabled Newman to pursue a career in acting. She had already begun acting in Jamaica, working with an amateur theatre group that donated its proceeds to charity. However, Australia offered what she describes as “the privilege to make choices; the privilege to just choose what to do with your life, as opposed to being forced to make a ‘smart’ decision about what you want to do”.

At the same time, she describes coming to Australia as “a massive culture shock” and confesses that, following the move, she went through “a really long depression that probably lasted… 10 years, maybe”. In her telling, there is no trace of anger or self-pity, but the discrimination she experienced comes through in the way her fast-talking confidence slips slightly, in the careful, diplomatic pauses between her words.

“It’s very different to when I first came here 20 years ago… 19 years ago. And, you know, I knew that I was different, I was made to feel different … I can’t imagine if English was my second language. There were things that definitely worked in my favour, but I became hyper-aware of – as many, many immigrant people talk about, and not even immigrant people, people who are born here and who just don’t happen to be white – I became hyper-aware of the ways that I could make myself seem the same as in order to stop the questions, because … after a while you just want to get treated like a regular person.”

I ask her what she did to fit in. “Oh, certainly my accent,” she says. “I wanted a sound that was closer to something that Australians were used to hearing on television, that sounds closer to a North American dialect, and it would just mean that people would be less… people would listen to what I was saying as opposed to how I was saying it.”

Her other strategy was to pretend to like things that, in reality, she “didn’t necessarily like”, and it is here her experience and that of John Grant, the “outsider” protagonist of Wake in Fright, overlap in a literal sense. “Drinking and alcohol culture was way new to me,” says Newman. “It’s certainly not in Jamaica; I mean, music, going out, absolutely. Partying, yes, but drinking, the heavy, heavy drinking, that was very new to me in Australia, and that is one of the things that has absolutely changed in me – I became a very heavy drinker very early on, and that was in an effort to fit in, to be like everybody else, and that’s what you do, you hang around in a park and get drunk… Really?”

After living in Brisbane for two years, Newman moved to the regional city of Toowoomba to study acting at the University of Southern Queensland. “I spent two years in Toowoomba, and I was like, ‘I need to get the fuck out of this country, this country is not for me!’” she says, laughing. After two more years, she transferred to Melbourne, and continued studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, where she finally began to feel more at home: “I came to Melbourne, and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, it’s not so bad, okay, phew!’”

Since graduating, she has had a prolific and varied career, acting in many one-woman and small ensemble productions, as well as doing a two-year stint in the international blockbuster musical The Book of Mormon, which, she said, gave her a new understanding of “the commercialisation of art”.

Newman’s experiences have shaped her profoundly, and the self-described “stubborn” and “forthright” actor has a passionate interest in politics and the operations of power and privilege. “I definitely think where I come from has absolutely shaped the way I see the world and what frustrates me about it,” she observes. Her restless energy is evident in the pantomime of hand movements with which she punctuates her words; her elegant hands are moving constantly, in motions of drumming, rolling, chopping, layering, pushing, stirring.

While she continues to be passionate about acting, she harbours a desire to extend her interest in politics. She says she would love to go back to university to study international relations or political science. “I mean, this is utopia, right?” she asks with a laugh. “I’d love to do another language. Because, I feel like, you know… there are a lot of things that I might not necessarily have a lot of ‘book smarts’ about; I’ve got a lot of opinions, and it would just be really great to see how your opinions buck up against history.”

Newman confesses that, in recent years, she has seriously considered such a change of profession. “I don’t know if I should put this in the public domain,” she says, “but I have a couple of times, particularly over the last few years, considered leaving the acting profession. I think many actors do – many artists do – come to a point of nth degree or something when they think,” here she puts on a plaintive, melodramatic voice, “I can’t do this anymore, I’m done, I’m out, I’m leaving, I’m getting a real job!

 

Back on stage, Newman is inhabiting the persona of Doc Tydon, the terrifying alcoholic former doctor, played in the original film adaptation by Donald Pleasence. She is delivering a lecture on gratitude, and I cannot help but be reminded of what she has told me about the theatre industry – a world that seems as fraught with unspoken codes of expectation and compliance as the Yabba; another point of experience, perhaps, in which her performance is grounded.

“Yes, toxic masculinity and the privilege that that has afforded a certain segment of society has been around and works across our industry,” she concedes, again choosing her words with tact. “There’s still this feeling of, ‘You should just be thankful and be on your knees and be grateful’, and it’s that sort of power dynamic that I think is unhealthy. And it’s also something that artists tell themselves: we should be so thankful because the work is so scarce, it’s so difficult to come by, and so we put ourselves in a position as well, of feeling like, ‘I shouldn’t ask about this, I shouldn’t complain about this, because then what happens?’”

As I leave the rehearsal studio, Newman is writhing around on the floor, in the throes of a killer hangover. There was an unsettling nexus of overlapping themes that emerged across our conversation: the grateful actor, the fortunate migrant, the lucky country. “I think part of the thing that is nightmarish about [Wake in Fright],” explains Newman, “is about the mirror being thrown up to the culture, and the culture having to stomach the reality of that reflection, the honesty of that reflection, without just lashing out against it, you know: no that’s not, that’s not, that’s not…” Newman is just the woman to hold up that mirror. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "Lone stranger". Subscribe here.

Emily Bitto
is an author. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize.