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Review: Anthem at Arts Centre Melbourne

By Rosie Niven

Twenty years after Who’s Afraid of the Working Class, the team from Melbourne Workers’ Theatre is back to bring us a new story of Australia’s social climate: Anthem, a work that challenges us to question what it means to be Australian in 2019.

In order to figure out what Australia looks like 20 years on, the creative team of 5 (Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irene Vela) took the trains around Melbourne. Travelling to the outskirts of the city and back, they found the current city to be a bleak place, full of people glued to their phones, full of people living on the streets, full of thousands of people never making contact. What they felt was a loss of humanity, and an uncertain national identity – and from this, Anthem was born.

Director Susie Dee has brought together an incredibly strong ensemble of fourteen actors, all of whom threaded their personal stories through this work: Maude Davey, Reef Ireland, Ruci Kaisila, Thuso Lekwape, Amanda Ma, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Sahil Saluja, Osamah Sami, Eva Seymour, Carly Sheppard, Jenny M. Thomas and Dan Witton formed a brilliant ensemble that moved effortlessly through narratives and set changes. It is clear that this has been a collaborative process with the writers, and it has been an absolutely successful one. Although a fantastic ensemble, credit has to be given to three actors that truly shone: Carly Sheppard as the young woman who is trying to find her identity through her family and her connection to Country, Eryn Jean Norvill as the hilarious Chemist Warehouse worker that will stop at nothing to get justice (and even just a kick out of life), and Ruci Kaisila with her heartbreakingly powerful rendition of Advance Australia Fair, ending with telling the audience to “pay up c*nts”.

The work is divided into four parts, each interweaving to create a concise narrative. Andrew Bovell’s Uncensored creates a chorus of commuters trying to make ends meet, Melissa Reeves’ 7-Eleven and Chemist Warehouse, a love story follows two Bonnie and Clyde-esque low paid workers on a dangerous mission to take down capitalism, Patricia Cornelius’ Terror looks at the intersection of class and gender with three different women who have found themselves in financial hardship, and Christos Tsiolkas’ Brothers and Sisters examines how money can change an individual’s relationship with their family, and the resentment that comes from escaping your tough upbringing. All of these stories are held together by Irine Vela’s score, Resistance, a piece that is performed by two musicians live on stage and makes the work feel alive and electric.

In a world segregated by race and class, one of the only places that people of all walks of life still come together is the train. Young, old, wealthy, poor, white, black, brown, everyone. This is where the majority of the action is set, a frequently moving fluid space devised beautifully by Designer Marg Horwell. It’s a forced cultural hub that also happens to be a frequent point of tension: we see online videos of racial tirades, hear stories about assaults, and in person, when we see these things happening, we do nothing. Bovell mentioned something incredibly poignant during the post-show discussion; “We’re in an age where we lose the capacity to act”, he said, and that inaction will very quickly be the end of us. One action in this show is particularly political, and made a number of audience members very uncomfortable, and that was the tearing down of the Australian flag, a symbol of colonialism and our ties to an identity we don’t understand or want to be a part of anymore. One woman in Anthem frequently shares her memories of the Nazi occupation of Crete, and how tearing down the Nazi flag was the most visible sign of resistance at the time. Can we do the same now with colonial Australia?

Anthem is a brave work to bring to the Arts Centre Melbourne – it is defiant, and unapologetic, and incredibly divisive. But it needs to be. This is the current state of Australia, and it is something we need to talk about. We have a shocking relationship with our First Nations Peoples, we’re scared of the poor, and when someone is reaching out for help we as a country hang our heads and avoid eye contact. As Cornelius said, “These stories are fucking vibrant and they should be threaded through places such as this.” We’ve lost the capacity to act, and sometimes to even feel compassion – Anthem shines a light on our flaws as a country and tells us to get up and do something. It is a powerful, crucial work, and is not to be missed.

Images Supplied

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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