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The Drover's Wife

23 September 2016 | 4:47 pm | Fiona Cameron

"An important new work that examines Colonial Australia, not only through the eyes of a woman but also via an indigenous perspective."

If it's true that a great play can be summed up in a single word, then for Leah Purcell's new production, The Drover's Wife it would be 'endurance'.

Those familiar with the Henry Lawson short story that Purcell takes as her inspiration for the play will recognise certain elements - a lone woman and a danger that threatens her children - but that is where the similarity ends. This is an important new work that examines Colonial Australia, not only through the eyes of a woman, but also via an Indigenous perspective.

The production's spare, sparse staging suits the material and its themes, adding to the atmosphere and calling to mind iconic paintings that depict the hard life on the land; the isolation and the perils that arise unbidden.

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Indeed, the choice to make Yadaka, played by Mark Coles Smith, the hero of the piece, makes him a strong counterpoint to Molly Johnson, the titular character played by Purcell herself. The story doesn't waste time on romanticism or sentimentality but instead shows us the importance of family and the difference we make when we seek to help each other instead of harm, although there is plenty of that too.

Purcell and Coles Smith imbue their roles with depth and humanity, albeit flawed, and a realism the audience can't help but respond to. While this is a tense drama, small moments of humour are well judged and skilfully placed.

Newcomer Will McDonald takes the role of Danny, Johnson's son, a boy on the verge of becoming a man - despite what his current lack of body hair would suggest to his absent father, Joe. This excellent young artist brings a compelling authenticity and energy to the stage.

Perhaps it is because these three central characters are so beautifully developed, vital and alive, that other parts of this storytelling come across as caricaturish; a simply drawn pastiche of the values and views of the time.

The work drew a lengthy standing ovation from the packed opening night house, showing that while sometimes we might feel like we've heard every story about this period in our nation's past, new eyes and a challenging perspective remind us there is much out there just waiting to be found and savoured.

Belvoir St Theatre presents The Drover's Wife to 16 Oct.