“May you dream of the Devil and wake in fright” is the curse from which Kenneth Cook took the title of his 1961 novel, Wake in Fright. If only waking up were that easy.
The 1971 film adaption is better known than the novel. It was nominated as one of the best films at the Cannes Film Festival and is now so integral to Australian film culture that not seeing it isn’t an option. But it didn’t do well commercially when it was released in Australia. That could be because the psychological horror of the film is so harrowing that one viewing is often enough, but it was assumed that Australians didn’t like seeing an Australia that’s “not us”.
Wake in Fright is seen and imagined as inescapable outback and crowds of sweating, stinking, drunken men who have lost their humanity.
John Grant is the only teacher in a miniscule outback town who can’t wait to leave. Heading to Sydney for a holiday, he stops overnight at the fictional mining town of Bundayabba (very like Broken Hill) to get a flight back to his educated and sophisticated world. It’s hotter than hell in the Yabba, women are rare, and the only thing as popular as beer is the two-up game. Luckily, it’s also a town of good blokes who welcome strangers who want to fit in.
Good blokes like the one who gives a broke stranger beer and a bed and doesn’t care if the new bloke has sex with his daughter.
It’s all good if you’re a good bloke, if you're one of them. Even “Doc” from South Africa loves the Yabba – as long as he’s grateful to live in a decrepit shack and drink warm beer dregs.
In Malthouse’s production, all the characters are performed by Zahra Newman.
She’s not one of them. She’s a woman. She’s an actor from Melbourne. She tells us that she’s always being asked where she’s from. Some people assume she’s American or an Indigenous Australian. Many people assume that she’s an outsider, not “one of us”.
Writer and director Declan Greene developed this adaption with Newman, Nicholas James Brown (sound artist), Mischa Grace (visual artist), James Paul (sound design) and Verity Hampson (lighting and projection design). It combines text from the novel with observations from the actor. John Grant’s nightmare is condensed and expanded and felt with light and sound – earplugs are offered – and pink and blue dust.
While the novel takes us into the mind of John Grant, this adaption goes beyond his nightmare. It’s that time when you don’t know if you’re awake. That time when your conscious brain tries to believe that you’re safe and asleep but knows that going back to a nightmare is safer than waking up. It’s sound and images that don’t make sense but feel so real they must have happened. It’s that time when you need to wake up to stop the fear but know that waking up means you have to face the reality of the fear. Waking in fright is easier than this.
A weekend in the Yabba breaks white, educated, straight, able-bodied, cis, strong John Grant so quickly that he wants to die rather than spend another day in the “best little town”. Serves him right for saying he didn’t like the Yabba. He didn’t fit in. But it’s fiction. It’s imagination. Australia isn’t like that. The Yabba blokes are good blokes.
But what if you’re a woman, a person of colour, from somewhere else, or different in any way? What if you don’t try to be a good bloke? What if you’re not grateful?
It’s easy to dismiss stories as of their time; it was written in the 1960s, after all. But this remarkable adaption of Wake in Fright is now. Its visceral nightmare is reality for too many people in our country, in the Yabba.