Leah Purcell writes and stars in this post-colonial adaptation of Henry Lawson's 19th century tale of a woman alone and under threat in the Australian bush
Just released: limited tickets for matinee performance of The Drover's Wife – Wed Oct 12, 11.30am.
Recently a colleague recounted a conversation with a critic about Sydney’s theatre scene right now, the sum of which was this: it’s rare that you’ll see a terrible production; but it’s also rare that you’ll see a show that makes you sit up and think “This is what we do it for.”
The Drover’s Wife is absolutely what we all – anyone who invests in theatre, as a maker, audience member or commentator – do it for. This new Australian play, written by Leah Purcell and directed in its premiere production by Leticia Cáceres, is beautifully written, thoughtfully made, persuasively performed, and infused with the raw emotion of lived experiences. But most importantly, it is a work that is urgent, necessary, and belongs in the theatre (though we’d be stunned if it didn’t get adapted for screen).
Simply put: Purcell decided to adapt Henry Lawson’s 1892 bush tale The Drover’s Wife for stage. She infused the basic premise (a woman surviving various hardships in the bush while her husband is away) with her personal history, her family history, and a nation’s history – and came up with a post-colonial feminist western; in her words, there’s “action, guns, and a bit of a romance.” The result is an immensely satisfying marriage of theatre, storytelling and social history.
As the play opens, a young Indigenous man (named Yadaka, played by Mark Coles Smith) has turned up at the property of the drover’s wife (played by Purcell) badly wounded and wearing an iron collar that marks him as a criminal. At the same time an older swagman, Thomas McNealy (Tony Cogin), arrives with a tale of a terrible crime, a murderer on the loose, and a manhunt. It’s no time for a white woman to trust a black man, he reckons – and besides, there’s probably a bounty on this black man’s head.
The action of Purcell’s play takes place after the incidents in Lawson’s tale – a fact that becomes apparent when the drover’s wife (finally given a name: Molly) tells Yadaka about the time a black man stacked her woodheap hollow and a snake got in under the shanty; there followed a tense and sleepless night as she and the family dog Alligator waited to do battle with the serpent while the children slept on the kitchen table.
In Purcell’s play, this anecdote is offered as one of several examples of Molly’s racial prejudice but also one of many reasons for her self-reliance. Purcell has developed a rich backstory for Molly, and part of the urgency of this play is the fact that it addresses the silent stories of colonial women – black and white – in Australian history. Purcell reclaims the bush for the women whose blood, sweat, tears and amniotic fluids (literal!) nourished it.
Even more urgent is this play’s redress of silent Indigenous narratives in Australian history, and there is a sense, watching this show, that the entire post-settlement history of Australia has been collapsed into an act of theatre on the Belvoir stage. The Drover’s Wife, like The Secret River before it, attempts to rewrite the prevailing account of race relations.
If that makes it sound generalised, it’s not: Purcell based Yadaka on her great grandfather, who ran away with the circus (literally) when he was a boy, and spent years trying to get back to his homeland in North Queensland. In fact, her play demonstrates that principle so beautifully elucidated by photographer Diane Arbus when she said of the art of portraiture:
“The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be. You really have to face that thing. And there are certain evasions, certain nicenesses that I think you have to get out of.”
Purcell’s play is neither ‘nice’ nor evasive. She writes specific incidents that are now rife in the history of colonial Australia: miscarriage, rape, lynching, domestic violence, the forcible removal of children from Indigenous mothers. These are not general themes or allusions to atrocity; she describes and depicts things specifically – and Cáceres (whose previous Belvoir credits include Mortido, Miss Julie and The Dark Room) doesn’t shy away from the violence. (It’s arguable that a trigger warning would be appropriate, given the extended rape scene). There is trauma seeping out of the pores of this piece.
The guiding principle of the play, however, is rewriting the narrative of Indigenous Australia. The women are not victims, the men are not monsters. In Purcell’s tale, Yadaka is the hero, and so is Molly. Her teen son Danny (the only of Molly’s four children who is present in the play) is the hopeful vessel into which Molly’s family history is poured at the end of the play. This is a play in which anger is balanced against optimism.
With this mission to re-write/reimagine in mind, it nevertheless feels as though the considerable momentum and tension of the text and production are lost in the final stretch, which drags out through three different possible endings. All of them are important, but together they give an overstuffed quality to the denouement of a piece that is otherwise so cleverly constructed and concise.
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Purcell has completely revamped the original story with racial and gender issues taking centre stage. It is ambitious but through her carefully crafted writing and acting the team pull it off, and the result is something special which will follow me for sometime. The stark difference between community and family in their broadest sense are laid painfully bare. How easily a community can switch to rape, murder, and destruction on the flimsiest pretext. The historical context gives us some relief from looking at ourselves in the mirror, and understanding how near the surface these horrors are, when a society is under pressure. Mark Coles Smith supports her impeccably and keeps this tricky script believable and poignant. Great stuff!