How do we see ourselves?
Poet and Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Melbourne Chris Wallace-Crabbe said by way of introduction to the session of the Festival he was chairing, “Identity is a ball that slips through our fingers. Think for a moment about how it was modified as our eating-out became Chinese, Italian, Indian or Thai. Consider how an Australian’s sense of the world shifted as Russia suddenly changed from being the most heroic nation in World War Two to villains of the Cold War. Or when convict ancestry slowly became a mark of distinction, tiptoeing into our family histories.
“History moves fast now, and I often consider how my relatives with a Vietnamese background read their identity. Or the Chinese, who will increasingly own the country. Their children will in part read the talismans of Ned Kelly, Melba, Gallipoli and Bradman with different hues of irony, taking into account the peculiar humour of absence. But most of them will take comfort in being Australians, adding their semi-private jokes to this multicultural fruit-salad. They will barrack for our teams in sporting events, for instance; there is seldom much ambiguity in barracking.”
In a Festival of Ideas session on “identity” in Australian drama, when asked during questions if the young cast could relate to the ‘old-school’ characters and issues presented, student actor Anna Samson said it was the job of actors to find truth in whatever character is set before them.
It was an interesting response in support of the view that all theatre can be relevant, if truths about humanity are sought by both cast and audience.
Listening to an excerpt from Alexander Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed, (performed by actors Ray Chong Nee and Tom Dent) which brings white, middle-aged Norm into contact with Pakistani university student Ahmed, it’s hard to believe it was originally written in 1967, and not right now.
Norm eulogises about how Australians are committed to the ethic of a fair go, and advocates assimilation and adoption of typical masculine pursuits – the Leagues club, the pub – before beating Ahmed and calling him a ‘boong’.
It exemplifies the game of identity and feels uncomfortably close to hand.
The session, conceived, narrated and commentated by VCA Performing Arts’ Senior Lecturer, Dr Paul Monaghan, with excerpts selected and rehearsed by Masters student and playwright Marcel Dorney was a fascinating and intentionally selective survey of Australian drama.
“Australian drama has for a long time been preoccupied by a search for identity that has been informed by a series of colonisations and vigorous resistances to those influences,” says Dr Monaghan.
Even while archetypal characters like Monk O’Neill in Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination (1972) were being created, their authenticity and legitimacy were being called into question.
“Critic Katherine Brisbane called the play ‘the first genuine dramatic classic Australia has produced’,” says Dr Monaghan. “In the play we see Monk O’Neill’s surreal, satirical reassessment of his past glories and iniquities and this captures a culture grappling with its myths at a moment of rapid and overdue change.”
A standout vignette from the performance was extracted from a new work by Angela Betzien, called War Crimes, which will be premiered at the VCA and Victorian schools in August this year.
Angela Betzien is an internationally recognized writer for children and young people and she is co founder of the company, Real TV. Her plays Children of the Black Skirt and Hoods have been published by Currency Press. Both plays have toured widely across Australia and in 2010 Hoods toured internationally to Cortile Theatre Im Hof – Italy and Dschungel Wien Theaterhaus – Austria. Hoods was awarded a 2007 Australian Writers Guild Award for Theatre for Young Audiences as well as the inaugural Richard Wherrett Prize for Excellence in Playwriting (Australia’s richest playwriting prize).
War Crimes looks at the lives of five teenaged girls living in a depressed coastal town, and explores their sense of isolation, belonging, sexual attraction and friendship, through the revelation of secrets. It was beautifully performed by Maurial Speerim and Anna Samson, whose dialogue and evocation of edgy innocence were particularly special.
Dr Monaghan finished with a quote from Nadine Holdsworth, which was refreshing for its honesty: “Theatre that engages with the nation will have to move away from tired and impossible questions of national identity and instead rely on creative interactions and collaborations that continually make and re-make the nation in the present tense”.
Watch the session at: