Ursula Yovich and Aaron Pedersen play two wanderers who meet on the road, in this new Australian tale
There are two distinct influences running through John Harvey’s debut play Heart is a Wasteland and both of them originated in the US: country music and the road movie. Of course, Australians have over the years fully integrated these two genres into our psyche, adapting them to suit our needs. Indigenous Australians have played a large part in the success of this kind of appropriation – from artists like Archie Roach and Dan Sultan to films like Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Tracker – and have helped reshape these cultural movements to a specifically local milieu.
The affinities between Indigenous Australia and these two cultural phenomena are clear; the peripatetic nature of the road movie and country music’s deep respect of homeland are profound concepts to our First Nation peoples, although any discussion of this is complicated by the appalling history of colonisation. As director (and sister to the playwright) Margaret Harvey argues in the program notes, Aboriginal voices are rarely the driving forces of stories involving Aboriginal people. After all, those two films mentioned earlier were either written or directed by white people.
This is one of the reasons Heart is a Wasteland is so refreshing: it is conceived, written, directed and performed by Indigenous artists, and makes little concession to white perspectives. In fact, white people don’t even come up. That’s not to say that the play is oblivious to the dark history of oppression, abuse and murder that colonisation represents; if anything, that history is a living, breathing presence throughout.
The story is a simple one. Raye (Ursula Yovich) is a singer/songwriter making ends meet playing gigs in pubs from Alice Springs to Darwin. One night she meets miner Dan (Aaron Pedersen) and the two decide to hit the road together. He’s got a girlfriend and she’s got a kid, but it doesn’t stop them hooking up and falling in love. It’s a quick and offhand affair, affable at first but soon haunted by the characters’ emotional and psychological ghosts. Both characters are wracked by guilt and shame – for things they did and things they didn’t – and while despair is largely kept at bay, hope seems unobtainable.
Harvey directs the play in a minor key, eschewing grand dramatic gestures in favour of something gentler and more persuasive. She elicits touching and authentic performances from her cast. Yovich has a lovely voice, lilting but with a hint of gravel; her performance is likewise warmly compassionate and occasionally gritty, suggestive of a lifetime of struggle and determination. Pedersen is magnificent as the avuncular but troubled Dan; his growling vocal delivery hints at years of drink and hard living, but he’s also capable of pure tenderness and self doubt. They play off each other beautifully.
The play works best when it is teasing out the burgeoning connections between the characters, when the trauma and emotional barriers can be glimpsed just below the surface. There is also a terrific scene of verbal abuse that manages to convey the heartbreaking self-destruction that Aboriginal men in particular can fall victim to. It is less effective in scenes of exposition, where backstory is dumped on the audience in what feels like a blatant attempt to manipulate our sympathies. The actors almost manage to make this work, but Harvey would have been better off drip-feeding this information to us, or submerging it entirely into the subtext.
Technically the production is lovely, with evocative film projections (Desmond Connellan) that add atmosphere and texture. The musical numbers (Lydia Fairhall) are sweet and soulful, and provide momentum to the action. There is a sense, though, for all its gentle theatricality, that the piece would work better as a film. Road movies can make central characters out of the environment, augmenting or undermining the human emotional landscapes with real and potent physical ones. A road play can’t do this as effectively, and while the results here are moving and authentic, they don’t soar quite like they would have in another medium.