Heart is a Wasteland

Heart-is-a-Wastelend-photo-by-Tiffany-GarvieOf all the tropes in the Romantic Comedy, the meet cute is perhaps the most instantly recognisable. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy – it’s a formula so well-worn it transcends cliché.

Two hands reach for the same novel, a Dalmatian drags its owner into the arms of a stranger, or a fan strikes up a conversation with a country music star after their gig.

The latter forms the basis of Heart is a Wasteland, a 2017 collaboration between Malthouse Theatre and Brown Cabs (with the support of Footscray Community Centre) that arrives at Melbourne Art Centre’s Fairfax Studio after a sell-out run at Darwin Festival.

On paper, the show tells a classic love story: Raye (Monica Jasmine Karo), a folk musician travelling up to Darwin peddling her EP in various bars, meets Dan (Ari Maza Long), a miner with a heart of gold and a tragic past, after a gig in Coober Pedy.

They share a passion for Tracy Chapman and, soon enough, a hotel room. It’s meet cute 101 and the pair quickly decide to make the journey up to Darwin together.

Over three days, they move through the stages of early love – from honeymoon period to first fight – between bar gigs and landmarks.

Those that have caught the show in its earlier iterations will know that its central love story is more razor edged than it is honey coloured. The nightmare sequence that opens the show sets the scene, placing its romance against a backdrop made up of individual traumas and gothic conventions.

Individual suffering – of child removal, addiction and poverty –  accumulate alongside an historical suffering that the land they drive through bears the scars of. It is a love story tightly wound around the realities of contemporary Indigenous experience and writer John Harvey is unflinching in representing it.

ILBIJERRI Theatre Company brings this celebrated show back to Melbourne with a quiet restraint. Staging is minimal: music boxes double as car seats, a small line of lights at the back of stage signal traffic and a mic stand in the corner sets every bar scene.

There is an eyesore in the form of a TV screen in the corner that displays various general landscapes. Its presence is never justified, and it seems to represent an attempt to fill the spacious Fairfax Studio after the show’s previous run in the more intimate confines of a festival space.

As it stands, it compromises the potential effectiveness of the set’s sparsity. Thankfully, a series of projections designed by Sean Bacon open up the space, imagining nightmarish landscapes, petrol stations and nuclear bombs with flittering chalk outlines.

As Dan, Ari Maza Long affects a levity and easy confidence that is instantly endearing. His larrikin characteristics mask a repressed pain that Long handles with humour and genuinity. His performance provides much of the show’s emotional through-line, and his singing voice, though rarely used, is powerful.

Karo handles Raye’s sharp-witted bravado with equal power, though often buckles under the weight of more dramatic scenes. Still, her delivery of original compositions from Lydia Fairhall and Gary Watling are among the show’s highlights. And together, both actors evoke a believable intimacy that drives the show forward, helped by Rachel Maza’s careful direction. 

Maza knows the show’s strengths. Conversations move with natural rhythms and are paired with naturalistic blocking despite the abstract set. Scene transitions are seamless, signalled by subtle changes in lighting (designed by Niklas Pajanti) and quick-fire music cues that ensure the show’s pace never dips. 

Though the script rushes to its ending, these moving parts come together to embolden the show’s emotional climax. It is not a hopeful conclusion in any conventional sense. Where the romantic comedy might end with resolution, Heart is a Wasteland lands somewhere more honest.

Harvey smartly returns us to the intimate surrounds of one final gig. Now in Alice Springs, Raye premiers a song she’s written over the past three days she’s spent with Dan. Country music is ‘three chords and the truth’, we are told early on.

In this final song’s lyrics (from Lydia Fairhall again) truth is found between the pair in rich cultural connection, one etched deeper than that of any casual romance.

It’s not a light-hearted ending but in its quietude, it leaves us with something hardier, more stable: endurance. Perhaps, in this it resembles something like an ear-worm from a country song one can’t help but hum, despite – or because of – the heartaches that motivated it. 

Heart is a Wasteland
Fairfax Studio – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 25 August 2022
Season: 25 – 27 August 2022 (closed)

For more information, visit: www.ilbijerri.com.au for details.

Image: Monica Jasmine Karo and Ari Maza Long in Heart is a Wasteland – photo by Tiffany Garvie

Review: Guy Webster