At a time of recycled stories and nostalgic reboots, it isn’t a surprise that this formula has found its way to the stage. Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? Held a mirror up to a 90s era Melbourne, and indeed the rest of the country, with its bold and unashamed representation of a world rarely seen and characters struggling on the edges for survival.
Anthem is billed as the follow up to Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? and while it reaches staggeringly impressive highs in terms of writing and performance, the work pales in comparison to its predecessor. Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela reteam to explore new stories and characters, and question whether we, as a wider community and country, do indeed sing with one voice.
The writing, of course, is masterful, with each work complementing the other while retaining each playwrights own style and dramaturgical structure. It is clear that time and respect has been gifted to crafting each vignette, however the investigations into the themes and issues explored feel extremely surface and even superficial at times.
While care has been given to retain a level of authenticity, it has to be said that these are characters and stories that we already know. In a rapid lexicon of media and information, micro zeitgeists rapidly become macro in a blink of an eye. Many moments throughout the work teeter on the edge of tone deafness, taking away from some truly beautiful and gut wrenching work by the performers on stage.
Far too many scenes fell flat, with cliché and archetypes used in place of full formed characters. It felt painfully clear that the bulk of the audience all knew these people, have experienced or witnessed moments with these characters in their lives but little agency is given to allow a deeper understanding of the why – why is it important that we see these lives. Why is it important that their stories are told? And why should we care when there seems little impetus to care.
That being said, apathy is heavily used throughout the work and is a defining force for many characters. Perhaps that is the core of the work, watching a world pass us by that we keep at arms lengthen. If, as the marketing would have us believe, Anthem’s aim was to “turn up the volume on the everyday injustices we choose not to hear” – this thread of indifference was the one that should have been pulled on more.
Maude Davey, Reef Ireland, Ruthy Kaisila, Thuso Lekwape, Amanda Ma, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Sahil Saluja, Osamah Sami, Eva Seymour, Carly Sheppard, Jenny M. Thomas, Dan Witton are a powerhouse ensemble, effortlessly morphing from one character to the next with ease. It is truly a joy to see performers flex their creative muscles and attack a work with fury and vigour.
The work is stylistically impressive, a stark multi use staging allows the world to change as each story is told. An evocative score and detailed lighting states shift focus and tone, while alleviating the more unnecessary scene shifts. Susie Dee’s direction is unsurprisingly on point but does often lack an imaginative way to convey the expansive nature of the story.
Projects like Anthem are a welcome addition to the Australian theatre cannon and while further time could have been given to the development, one hopes that the work is seen by audiences far and wide.
Playhouse – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 5 October 2019 – 7.00pm
Season: 3 – 6 October 2019 (ended)
Image: Anthem – photo by Pia Johnson
Review: Gavin Roach