It’s almost miraculous that, two decades after they collaborated on the landmark play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class, the Australian theatre dream team of writers Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and composer Irine Vela are back together again. Miraculous because each of the collaborators has gained enormous acclaim since 1998; while they all had individual successes back then, each is now officially a big deal in their own right.
But the opportunity presented by Anthem – to collectively grapple with what this country is, and the conflicts that lie at its core – proved too lucrative to resist. The resulting work is a frequently arresting, big-thinking portrait of a nation at war with itself, where wounds fester rather than heal, and conflict begets conflict. Pain begets pain.
That’s not to say that Anthem is a bleak experience. It’s set mostly on Melbourne trains and weaves together different narratives from the four playwrights in ways that are gripping and intoxicating. It’s an anthology of sorts, curated by the writers and director Susie Dee into a mostly cogent but sprawling night of theatre, performed by a superb cast of 14, including two musicians on violin and double bass.
Things kick off inauspiciously with a scene by Tsiolkas in which a young Australian man (Thuso Lekwape) and an English woman (Eryn Jean Norvill) find themselves stuck on the Eurostar, travelling back to London. Their journey has been disrupted by pro-refugee protesters, and a conversation occurs between the woman and the man. It’s not the sort of conversation you’d expect to hear between a black man and an educated young white woman exploring the intersection of class and race. It’s got some choice lines that will undoubtedly shake an audience out of their political comfort zone, but as a scene it’s a bit too blunt to have much of an impact.
Things improve significantly once the stage starts filling with commuters during rush hour in Bovell’s chapter, in which we hear unspoken thoughts and truths coming to life like a choral work, as individuals jostle for literal and figurative space. It’s gorgeous writing and handled expertly by Dee, whose use of the public space – smartly designed by Marg Horwell with simple train seats and moving platforms to define separate places – is extraordinary throughout. In fact, Dee’s consistency of style and handling of transitions is core to the work’s overall success. In the hands of a lesser director, we’d never see the connective tissue and make links between these works, or what they have to say about class, gender, race, poverty and sexuality. And every one of them has something to say.
Reeves offers what’s closest to a reprieve with a very funny Bonnie and Clyde-esque tale of two underpaid retail workers who decide to demand what’s rightfully theirs. Sahil Saluja and Eryn Jean Norvill make for a wonderfully funny pairing, and their scenes together zing with chemistry. Cornelius has a finely wrought tale of a white woman (Maude Davey) and her former maid (Amanda Ma) who meet on a train and discover a sudden, difficult shift in their power dynamic. And Tsiolkas’s scenes of three siblings grappling with identity in a violently forthright way has plenty of impact. But the most affecting scene is of a young mother struggling to keep her life together as the entire world seems to conspire to keep her from succeeding. When a public transport officer shows up, an exchange occurs that’s heart-stopping and riveting for exactly what it says about the compromised and dangerous positions our politics force individuals into.
There’s not a weak link in the entire cast, and there are particularly memorable moments from Carly Sheppard as an Indigenous woman who demands her land in the middle of a crowded train, and the scenes between Amanda Ma and Maude Davey as two women who find their positions unexpectedly reversed are unexpectedly touching.
There are also wonderful contributions throughout from Ruci Kaisila, who plays a busker performing the songs we’ve adopted as our national anthems before demanding that we “pay up”. It’s a shame she doesn’t get more of a chance to speak her own words, but she sings spectacularly and the richness of her tone fills the theatre, commanding the space. She should have the final word in the production, but there’s a coda scene that feels tacked on the end. It's also a shame that there isn’t a more prominent Indigenous voice in a “state of the nation” type play. There are a few other moments that don’t feel entirely dramaturgically secure, but the parts of Anthem that hit the mark are so overwhelmingly effective they’ll be difficult to forget.