|Zahra Newman performs Wake in Fright
Photo: Pia Johnson
Much like Malthouse’s production of Picnic at Hanging Rock, this new version of Wake in Fright feels urgent and relevant and a response to both the classic film and the novel – as well as an interrogation of our view of those texts and ourselves as Australians. Adapting the story into a one-woman performance starring Zahra Newman gives us a whole new context through which to examine the work.
“Where are you from?” is a kind of benign question on the surface. It suggests interest, but is really a kind of microaggression for non-white citizens of Australia. Zahra explains to us, before the show starts (but it has already started), that an Uber driver asked her this question recently and her response was to ask where he was from.
“Broken Hill” was his response. The name evokes the kind of town that Wake in Fright is set in – rural, mining, remote. And Zahra has her own thoughts on the place and a story of poisoned children she read about – a truth the Uber driver didn’t want to acknowledge or confront.
“If you shut down the mines in Broken Hill, half the population is out of work,” he said, without even a moment’s thought for how the mines might be poisoning the most vulnerable in its community.
It’s around here when we start hearing the story of John Grant, a teacher stuck in a remote Australian mining town, struggling to find a way out. And with him, we the audience are plunged into a sinister world that threatens his very life.
Early on in this production, the audience are already on edge; Zahra-as-actor isn’t exactly a welcoming presence, she wants us to hear about those small ways in which Australians make her feel like an outsider. “Where are you from” is a question she never answers – and it’s key to John Grant’s struggles to fight through the toxic masculinity of the Yabba without losing his sense of self.
Unfortunately, as the show progressed, I felt less and less like I was getting a new version of this story but a lacklustre imitation of it. Zahra Newman’s performance is energetic and searching, digging into the text, as if into dirt; the dust that covers her and John later is a striking visual but feels insubstantial.
Later still, animation is introduced – first as part of a two-up game and then as John struggles to survive, but this ends up muting Zahra’s performance, overwhelming the audience with visual and auditory information. The actor gets lost the same as John Grant does, but this felt unsatisfying. After having connected with Zahra as she brought us into the theatre and into this world, I was disappointed to lose her underneath theatrical trickery.
Zahra Newman is always worth seeing on stage. Declan Greene’s work is always engaging and thought-provoking. The combination of them both, along with dissecting this Australian classic, should have been a real gut-punch. But rather than feeling winded, I was deflated.