Stories about unions, strikes and loveable larrikins have wound their way into Australian folklore as cultural iconography. The working-class blue collar who sticks it to the ‘man’ is an Australian legend, but the character is rarely explored as any more than this stereotype. 

Red Cap, the story of Pat Mackie, iconic ‘leader’ of the Mt Isa mines dispute of 1964, is presented by La Boite Theatre Company, Queensland Music Festival and Mt Isa City Council, and delves into Mt Isa’s dark days when principles fought against the easy way out. Writer Janis Balodis and Composer Iain Grandage have created a multi-dimensional ensemble music-theatre piece, that is political, historical and enjoyable.

In 1964, Mount Isa Mining Company denied the workers call for payrises and better working conditions. The dispute continued to escalate, eventually resulting in Mount Isa Mines shutting down its work and turning away 4000 workers. Mackie was a pivotal representative of the workers, who while representing their beliefs, was not accepted by either the union or the company.

While the story uses Mackie as the protagonist, it is really a play about the people of Mt Isa, and their reactions to the situations of 1964 to 1965. However, Mackie is given a certain mystique, a dark side, a third dimension that is not often seen in this usually 2D like character. Mackie is not just the hero, but all the people are. Essentially, it is a good, enjoyable Queenslander story, and it does highlight some rather interesting parts of our history that are otherwise not spoken of.

Red Cap reminded me of an Aussie outback version of Oklahoma – showy, ocker and reminiscent in parts of a country hoe-down. That being said, there were some beautiful and amusing songs. The opening piece ‘Mt Isa, We’ll always surprise ya’ was a great, invigorating start to the show. And Sally McKenzie’s alto solo ‘Can you hear the silence’ was very powerful.

It was a great story, and an enjoyable musical score, however I did not see why Red Cap was presented as a musical. The music did not carry the story; the story carried itself and the music was thrown in beside it.

The biggest problem with Red Cap was the space it was performed in. Acoustically, the Roundhouse Theatre was terrible for this type of performance. It is such an open space that singular voices can be heard easily, but choral work becomes muffled and lost. The Roundhouse Theatre is designed to be a theatre-in-the-round space, with tiered seating around the four sides of the square stage. In Red Cap, the designers have opted to use one of the four sides as a background for the set, and also to project historical facts above the action. The fourth side of the theatre therefore is turned into a rickety stadium, that the chorus sits on and often performs from. Therein lies the second problem of the design. The chorus are so far away from the audience, along with the space being so open, that their voices are lost within the space and it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the lyrics behind the melodies. Much of what Janis Balodis has written into the lyrics is clearly political information, and yet these powerful words are lost on the audience. The third problem with the space was the way the action was directed around it. Because the set has been given a ‘backdrop’, much of the performance is directed towards the ‘front’, particularly during choral singing, and therefore the voices are all projected in the one direction, making it harder again for the people on the ‘sides’ to hear the lyrics. This problem was well combated at the start of the performance, when the chorus was completely spread over the stage and facing multiple directions – but at that stage they were simply ‘ah-ing’, and not singing any lyrics.

Basically, Red Cap would have been better presented in a different theatre. The Roundhouse theatre is so open that the voices just got sucked out of the space. The music feels unnecessary and the story is at times complicated by the effort of trying to overcome the problems of the space. It is a good show, but I do not think it was presented to its greatest potential.

A co-production between Queensland Music Festival, La Boite Theatre Company and Mount Isa City Council
Red Cap
Book by Janis Balodis
Music composed by Iain Grandage

Roundhouse Theatre
19 July - 4 August
Tue & Wed 6.30pm, Thu-Sat 8pm
Sat 28 July & Sat 4 August 2pm. After Show Discussion - 27 July
$22 - $55 | Group Discounts: $35 for 10+, $19 for school groups. Booking fees apply

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