"We have Don Dale and Pauline Hanson and many other examples that show that the reality of this country is often shameful and painful."
The Australian story is one that toes a fine line between pride and shame. On the one hand, there's the true blue Aussie spirit, the fair go, the lovable larrikins and the down but not out battlers; Crocodile Dundee, Waltzing Matilda, Ned Kelly. On the other, there's a past of horrifying atrocity, discrimination and violent, bloody and brutal racial oppression that stings our collective sub-conscience, even if we rarely dare to look this chapter of Australian history in the eye.
But that's all behind us now, isn't it?
Director Leticia Caceres doesn't believe so. As we discuss the contemporary resonances in The Drover's Wife, her latest production for Belvoir, her voice is cracked with emotion. "I would love to believe we've changed and part of me, some days, naively thinks that is the case," she shares. "There are Indigenous stories on our stages - Indigenous artists telling their story - and it is thrilling and progressive and beautiful. But then we also have Don Dale and Pauline Hanson and many other examples that show that the reality of this country is often shameful and painful. We refuse to talk about class. We refuse to talk about race. We refuse to talk about how impoverished our Indigenous communities are because we live on stolen land. We have such a long way to go."
"There are Indigenous stories on our stages - Indigenous artists telling their story - and it is thrilling and progressive and beautiful."
A new adaptation of the Henry Lawson short story by Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri playwright Leah Purcell is an unflinching challenge to these enduring injustices. It is faithfully set in colonial Australia at the end of the 19th Century, but in many ways Purcell's interpretation is more of a reboot, using the original text as a springboard to explore a more explicitly Indigenous perspective. The original centres on a dangerous snake, which invades the home of the titular heroine while her husband is away on a drove. It's a tale celebrating the brave pioneers of this nation's fledgling years and the resilience, Victorian fortitude and Anglo-Saxon family values that triumphed over the untamed savagery of the Australian wilderness.
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Repurposing this story to double hinge its overtly pro-colonial subtext has required a significant narrative substitution. This new play preserves the strong female lead, which will be performed by Purcell, but the snake - an embodiment of Australia's barbaric wildness - has been replaced by an Aboriginal man, played by Mark Coles Smith. Much like his animal counterpart, the threatening intentions of this character are presumed, his violence inferred merely by the fact that he is black and therefore culturally incompatible with sophisticated European sensibilities.
Caceres, a long-time collaborator with Purcell, has been struck by the significance of working on this production. In addition to its observations of race and discrimination, Purcell's text also tackles domestic violence, misogyny and dysfunctional family dynamics, weaving in candid elements of the playwright's personal history - her strained relationship with her Aboriginal father; difficulties with alcohol; growing up living with financial uncertainty. "Leah's text offers a way to talk about black history in a colonial context, but also reclaim part of that history which is glossed over in the original short story," Caceres says. "The metaphor of the snake has shifted significantly, so suddenly we no longer have a literal snake but a number of different forms of 'snakes' - dangers - that the drover's wife must fend against. It's brought further to the surface what it means to be a woman who is not only responsible for her own survival but also that of her clan, of her children."
Rather than counterbalancing the white-washed, romanticised aspects of Lawson's 1892 original with an overemphasis in the opposite direction, Purcell and Caceres have been guided by a commitment to stark honesty. "This text doesn't shy away from the brutality that black characters and female characters experienced, but it also doesn't try to portray them as arbitrarily noble or as victims. We've tried to accurately capture these characters' flawed battles to survive," Caceres explains. "There's isolation, there's poverty, there's hunger - everyone is at their extremes and that reveals what these people are willing to do and sacrifice in order to survive."
At the outset of this production's creative development, given its numerous nods to issues very much still present in Australia, a conversation about placing this narrative in the present day was had, but quickly dismissed: "We had the, 'What if we do it in jeans?' discussion, but we all felt it would undermine the potency of the writing and the potency of the vision." Retaining the original period setting had an unexpected, but wholly apt, effect on the message of this play, Caceres believes. More than two centuries have elapsed and still the same miscarriages and violations persist.
"Everyone working on The Drover's Wife has been very aware of how strongly it speaks to contemporary issues, but one of the things that we wanted to do, that we felt was essential to making it resonate in that way, was to contextualise it in its historical place. We haven't shied away from period costumes and set elements that really bring us back to 1893 and I think it's through the lens of these historical truisms that we see just how prominent the issues are now and how little we've actually evolved after all this time."
Belvoir St Theatre presents The Drover's Wife to 17 Oct.