This New Work From Australian Theatre Royalty Unpacks Australia In 2019

28 September 2019 | 9:02 am | Felicity Pickering

Director Susie Dee and actor Sahil Saluja talk to Felicity Pickering about revisiting an all-star collaboration 21 years later, and reflecting on a changed Australia.

Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class? first graced the Victorian Trades Hall stage in May 1998. The work from Melbourne Workers Theatre brought together four of the most important Australian playwrights of our time - Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas - and composer Irine Vela, to explore Australia in the 1990s. The play became a seminal theatrical work and a standout in the Australian theatre canon. 

Now, 21 years later, the same team are reuniting to take stock of the issues facing Australia today and to look at what has changed and stayed the same, for Anthem, as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival.

The idea of encapsulating the Australian zeitgeist is no easy feat, but with such playwriting heavyweights as Bovell, Cornelius, Reeves and Tsiolkas, director Susie Dee insists that we are in good hands. 

“They are all robust writers with great political heads,” she says. “It’s going to be a very important work. It’s provocative, it’s going to be entertaining, it’s going to be challenging. It’ll be epic. It’s a work about our times: contemporary, right here, right now. The themes are potent and relevant.”

Dee and Sahil Saluja, who plays Loki in Anthem, describe the play as a a work with great ambition, that makes big statements about what being an Australian means.  That was the writers’ intent from the outset. “This work is trying to tackle the bigger picture about this country,” Dee says. “The big questions were being asked: 'What is Australia? Who are we as an Australian society?'”

Anthem addresses different questions to Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class? – this time around class, Indigenous cultural politics, and cultural identity – because, as Dee explains, Australia is “very different culturally from 20 years ago”.

“It’s such a privilege to be amongst such really, really passionate theatre makers,” Saluja says. “There is a lot of heart. It really warms my heart to see this play, which talks about really big ideas – massive politically ideas – but at the end of the day you feel something. I think that’s why we watch theatre, it’s because we want to feel something when we come out of here. It makes quite a big statement. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are startled faces in the audience.”

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

While Dee has enjoyed working with such great minds, it’s at times a handful to juggle so many voices: “It gets noisy!" 

Saluja applauds the director for her ability to command a room and join so many voices together. “There wouldn’t be a lot of directors in this country who’d be able to bring five such prolific writers together and still be able to tell an overarching story. It’s hard when there are so many voices in the room. Dee has brought everyone together and it’s a massive effort.”

Dee credits the collaborative environment in the rehearsal room: “It’s great to have an open room. We have a really great ensemble.” 

She explains that open dialogue was encouraged during the development process, where everyone, not just writers and director, was permitted to voice their opinions. "We are trying to have a very robust and a quite transparent room where can really talk about these issues. People have been quite honest about having difficulty with this character or this political ideal.”

The cast is similarly impressive, featuring well-known names like Maude Davey and Eryn Jean Norvill, as part of a diverse and multi-generational cast. They’re no strangers to challenging work, and are no doubt helpful contributors.

When Sahill got the brief from his agent, “the first few lines were about who was writing this and how Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class? is like a cult play”. 

“When I saw the writers on this play, it was an actual dream," he says.

“They are legends of Australian theatre. To just be in a room with them and listen to them talk about anything is interesting.”

The play consists of several interwoven vignettes all set on a series of trains and platforms. Susie explains, “There are key characters, but there are three big scenes in the work, where the twelve actors have to work as an ensemble. It’s a collection of voice. It’s like a long poem. It’s quite poetic, it’s quite rhythmic.”

With four different playwrights collaborating on the one play, it could be difficult for Dee to integrate their differing styles. “Everyone has different colours," Dee offers. "There are different styles of writing.” 

Still, she notes the playwrights have been conscious about crafting a cohesive whole. “We’ve tried to have common characters where sometimes they sort of cross over into different writer’s stories.

“We have two musicians on stage as well. So working with music and 12 voices – it’s been exciting.” 

Complementing the show is Vella’s music composition, with a live double bass and viola on stage. Dee adds, “The composition is integrated into the work. It adds a richness to it and colour to the work and depth.”

Using the theatrical link of a train, Anthem is able to focus on a large range of stories, a cross-section of Australian society. Sahill says the stories can be at times deeply sad, and deeply funny. 

His character, Loki, in particular, is dealing with some big issues. It was a story that was close to his heart. Loki’s storyline explores the 7-Eleven wage fraud scandal from 2015, where it was exposed that the convenience store was underpaying foreign workers and doctoring payroll records, threatening deportation if workers spoke up. It’s an Australian migrant story that Sahill is proud to portray.

“My version of this character, he’s come to Australia for a few years. He’s worked at 7-Eleven and he hasn’t got his money, and what happens after? When do you decide enough is enough? When do you actually decide? And I think in real life I don’t think we are never able to come to that conclusion. But in a play, in a story, you can live that dream. It was like giving Loki, the character, his voice, and being like, 'Fuck, I’m going to do it for him,' because there are so many of us here, who have gone through the same thing.”

The play is sure to be a riveting statement about Australia today. Like Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class? before it, could we see Anthem on a future high school syllabus? Dee laughs, “I hope so, of course.”