Anthem (Arts Centre Melbourne) – theatre review

What does it mean to be Australian … to live in this country? What expectations do you have of others’ behaviour towards you … and what is the harsh reality? Who is exploiting who? Who is taking advantage and how significant is the social, class, gender, racial and cultural divide?

These are some of the big questions explored by passengers who ride the train network in Melbourne. I should quickly add that points of difference are established abroad between two strangers on a train carriage – one of whom is an educated man of colour who lives in Lyon and is headed back Down Under for the first time in years. The upshot of that is played out much later in the piece.

The work is a five-way collaboration between writers Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas and writer/composer Irine Vela. They have got together more than 20 years after the premiere of Melbourne Workers’ Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? to again take the pulse of society. To say what they find isn’t pretty is a gross understatement.

A multi-ethnic and multi-generational cast fills multiple roles as a number of scenarios are established and played out. A formerly well-to-do, middle-aged woman spots her former Asian cleaner, who worked for her for a decade. The cleaner is none too happy because the lady treated her shabbily and she and her husband often failed to pay her. She wants the money that is owed to her, but the woman’s fortunes have taken a decided turn. Now her ex-boss wants sympathy and care, something her former employee is hardly inclined to give.

Photos by Pia Johnson

Three aboriginal siblings with a lack of education ride roughshod over everyone and everything. They are angry and disrespectful, loud and intimidating. They have an axe to grind. A Greek couple is not impressed, but they have their own issues … trying to bail out their son who went against their wishes and saw his business collapse. A former 7-Eleven employee of Indian extraction was ripped off by his former boss and is now seeking redress at the point of a gun. He has some mental health issues and an ex-fiancé finds the weapon and decides to get her own back, as she – too – finds herself in a dead-end job at Chemist Warehouse.

A young couple skylark over rail lines, but he is aggressive and controlling. As a busker keen for some coin, a larger Indigenous lady with a strong and silky-smooth voice sings nationalistic Australian favourites, but is largely ignored. She lets fly. A separated, young, rough and ready mother is all at sea with her asthma-riddled five-year-old son who is prone to self-harm.

The vignettes intersect and collide with a double bassist and violinist providing a stirring musical backdrop. Anthem is poignant, dramatic and – at times – comedic. It paints the ugliest picture of a land of intolerance, racism, greed and oppression. It is compelling theatre at its finest, with a series of stellar performances from a highly talented troupe who walk the tightrope lives of the characters they inhabit. Bad language is commonplace, in keeping with the themes explored.

A utilitarian two-tier set – predominantly representing train carriages and railway platforms – crafted by Marg Horwell shows great creativity for something so mundane. During the course of proceedings, the configuration and direction of the carriages changes. Directed by Susie Dee, Anthem makes for an, at times, uncomfortable but nonetheless unforgettable theatrical experience, which effectively pokes the elephant in the room.

It is on at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 6th October, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, which finishes on 20th October, 2019. For more information, go to https://www.festival.melbourne/2019/

Alex First

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