Photo – Pia Johnson
Advance Australia Fair. Or is it? The Australian anthem, as it stands in 2019 is both a source of national pride and shame. A controversial ode to the nation, where life is quite often not fair, Anthem is the reunion of playwrights Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela. After a 21 year hiatus and the highly acclaimed Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, the team has produced a remarkable follow up. Where, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class looked at life on a larger scale, Anthem is a detailed investigation into mundane moments, which, as it turns out aren’t mundane at all.
In a brutally honest depiction of Melbournian life, several relationships interweave throughout the five storylines that propel the narrative. Set on a local train, these relationships take place in the public domain, a place normally reserved for hushed conversations or more likely, headphones in and staring at a screen. From the morning commute in the packed carriage, the audience easily slips into the familiar world of professional life and daily struggles.
We meet Lisa (Eryn Jean Norvill) and Lachie (Sahil Saluja) a disgruntled Chemist Warehouse employee and former 7/11 employee and victim of wage theft respectively. Theirs is a Bonnie and Clyde-esque love story, taking on big business, with desperation and not a lot of planning. Norvill is incredibly likeable as the ditzy Lisa, fed up with being the underdog and ready to take matters into her own hands. It’s a role played with glee as the hapless Lachie comes along for the ride he unwittingly started.
Tensions rise and buttons are pushed as different characters get on and off the trains. Australia’s class conflicts come into full view as a family of mixed race siblings’ board and all the pretend niceties of polite society are thrown out the window. A young mother faces economic and emotional exhaustion, a public transport officer makes a choice and a cleaner and her former boss come to a crossroads.
Racism runs strongly through the carriage, European, Asian, and Aboriginal commuters mingle, bash heads and refuse to come to any sort of compromise or conclusion. Anthem is an intricate look at everyday life, at the extraordinary within the ordinary. The talented collaboration of writers doesn’t allow the audience to lull into comfort for a moment. There is constant tension, fear and thankfully humour.
Backed by Irine Vela’s score, and sung through by the goose bump inducing Ruci Kaisila, who has one of the most outstanding voices in Australia, the music ties the puzzle pieces of the story together, my only criticism is there could have been a greater use of the onstage musicians, as the live music was a wonderful atmospheric addition to the production.
There’s a great deal happening in Anthem, a cross section of humanity meets and the differing opinions and cultures make for great people watching. A final rousing song from Kaisila and an in-your-face statement to the national flag brings a mixed response of what it is to Australian. Anthem tells the story of a divided nation, without identity, a nation full of rage and uncertainty, of outdated class systems and ingrained racism. There is no great happy ending in Anthem, but it’s something much more important, because it’s the truth. What is it to be Australian? Anthem may not have the answer, but at least it makes you ask the question.
2019 Melbourne International Arts Festival presents
by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela
Director Susie Dee
Venue: Playhouse | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 1 – 6 October 2019
Tickets: from $59