Savage River | Melbourne Theatre Company
Left - Peta Sergeant. Cover - Ian Bliss and Travis Cardona.

(Travis Cardona) and his father Kingsley (Ian Bliss) live alone in a shack on the Western coast of Tasmania. Having been raised in isolation and with his father unwilling to discuss the past, Tiger can compare life to just two things – the activities of the Mutton Birds that they observe and hunt, and the snippets of comedic films he sneaks a peak at on the television. With his father so opposed to the outside world that television represents, Tiger predominantly relates his own life to the innate patterns of the birds – mating, parenting and flying. The arrival of Jude (Peta Sergeant), their first “lady” visitor, forces Tiger to realise that the life of humans is far more complicated and there might just be a life outside of the world he knows. It is here that Steve Rogers’s Savage River demonstrates that the boundaries, in which we have been raised and come to expect, are not always clearly defined. They can also be traversed, but the very act of doing so may raise more questions than answers.

Savage River, directed by the MTC’s Associate Director Peter Evans, opens the first season at the new Lawler Studio. A co-production with the Griffin and Tasmanian Theatre Companies it will tour Tasmania in August having already had a season in Sydney.

In its very design this work creates a feeling of isolation. Kingsley and Tiger have lived alone on the edge of what was once the Savage River ever since the death of Tiger’s uncle and the departure of his mother. Whilst Kingsley leaves intermittently to work his four-day stints at the mine, Tiger, under his father’s instructions, never strays far from the shack. Like the river that is now a dam, Tiger and Kingsley, and indeed the audience, are going nowhere.

The set, by Stephen Curtis, is simply one side of the wooden shack, and then outside, a floor of grey river stones and silt marking the water’s edge. Many of the activities that would normally be conducted inside the shack are actually performed on the river stones so that outside becomes inside, manmade becomes natural, the earth and the water become home.

Sound designer Kelly Ryall and composer Jed Kurzel have mixed the sounds of birds with an unsettling score, whilst the lighting, by Daniel Zika, often casts the performance space in the eerie half-light of dawn or dusk. Like many works depicting the Australian bush, Savage River gives its surroundings an enigmatic and almost spiritual quality. Unfortunately this is interrupted frequently by the abrupt and often untimely transitions from soundtrack to silence.

In essence, the characters of Kingsley and Tiger are very likeable. Their apparent humbleness, generosity and Tiger’s innocence, lends itself to some lovely moments. Their welcome dinner for Jude for instance, consisting of self-caught and self-cooked “stuck up” Mutton Bird, involves a humorous lesson in the folding of cloth napkins and the use of cutlery. Two things which it seems Tiger may have seen only a few times in his life.

It is the individual and conjoined dynamics of these three characters however, each with their rather murky motivations, which are most problematic. Kingsley’s loyalty to Tiger and dedication to his protection is supposed to be the reason for the boundaries (physical, emotional and educational) that he has set. It makes his choice to bring home Jude, their first female visitor, all the more odd. Despite the companionship and financial aid Jude might offer, she is clearly a woman caught up in the type of life that Kingsley has tried so hard to protect his son from. Also dubious is Jude’s approach to Kingsley and the teenaged Tiger. With nowhere to go it seems unlikely that Jude would do anything to jeopardise the security Kingsley offers and yet from the onset she ignores Kingsley and instead blatantly flirts with Tiger.

There are several moments and themes in this play that have great potential but sadly they are often treated with a heavy handedness that is amplified by the intimate performance space. Whilst all three performances bring forth engaging characters, the nuances, particularly in facial expressions and touch, are missing. In terms of pace, several scenes begin in an apparently calm fashion only to climax in a shouting match or violence without the necessary build.

One of the most intense and believable scenes is one that has been stripped back so that the focus is purely on the performances. Tiger has taken Jude to the top of the mast of the boat in a dare to find freedom, if only for a while. It is there in the moonlight, with the only sound being Jude’s cries of childlike exultation that Sergeant is at her best. It is a shame that there weren’t more scenes in this work treated in such a fashion.

Also troubling is the implication in the subtext that the life of the Mutton Birds somehow mirror that of Tiger’s mother and her Indigenous heritage, and that they somehow offer an explanation for her disappearance. Rodgers goes some way to demonstrating the general lack of understanding towards Indigenous Australians in our country, but he only touches on what is a complex and highly emotive issue. There are so many unanswered questions surrounding the motivations and pasts of the characters in this work that there is little room for the exploration and subtle treatment such an issue deserves.

Despite its often frustrating treatment, this is a work with captivating moments and character interactions. For its characters and the audience alike, it seems that the answers to the past will be revealed with the opening of the chest which Kingsley has tried to keep hidden, locked, and out of Tiger’s reach. But if it is freedom that these characters seek, it seems that this will come only with the decision to move into the future and that is somewhere beyond the Savage River.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Steve Rodgers

A co-production with Griffin Theatre Company and Tasmanian Theatre Company

Director: Peter Evans

Venue: MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio
Dates: 22 July to 8 August 2009
Tickets: $30 - $35 (Under 30’s $20)
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 or

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