Review by Anja Bless
Blood on the Wattle, which premiered at Richard Wherrett Studio and is now showing at Chippen Street Theatre, is a timely piece written and directed by Geoffrey Sykes exploring countryside politics and refugee treatment in Australia. The play follows the troubled Federal member for ‘Western Slopes’, Karl Matters (Ken Welsh) as he battles with a changing rural Australia and somewhat of a mid-life crisis. Karl is reinvigorated with a new zest for life when he meets Vania Azadi (Befrin Axtjärn Jackson), a new arrival in town who has a passion for poetry and a sense of ‘foreignness’ that Karl finds intriguing.
The play follows their friendship as it develops, and the tensions that emerge as Karl’s desperation for companionship and his conservatism come to the fore, and Vania’s traumatic past is revealed. Blood on the Wattle is a show about the transitions occurring in regional Australia, and the conflicts this causes. It’s a play about forgiveness, life-long learning, and putting in the hard yards for a brighter future.
Welsh seems exceedingly comfortable in the part of Matters, a convincing portrayal of a conservative rural party member who has somewhat lost both his way and the direction of his family legacy. There were a few moments where Welsh sped too quickly, or occasionally seemed to bumble through, his lines. But overall Welsh was a welcome energy to the stage, comfortable with his character and ready to take on some of the tougher material.
Playing opposite Welsh, Axtjärn Jackson also has a lovely stage presence and seems at home in the role of Vania. She deftly moves along Vania’s many moods and holds her own when Vania faces and challenges the microaggressions of racism and the magnitude of her trauma. However, more work was needed to ensure Axtjärn Jackson’s projection was sufficient for the large space that is Richard Wherrett Studio, unfortunately many of her lines were too soft to be heard by much of the audience.
Also joining Axtjärn Jackson and Welsh is Kloud Milas as Louise Patterson, Matters’ loyal head of office. Milas drew some welcome comedic moments out for the audience and when she embodied the drawl of an Australian country ‘darl’ she was extremely convincing. Nonetheless, more work could have been done to give Patterson’s character more depth as at times Milas ventured into the realm of caricature.
Sykes has chosen an apt topic and timing for his play. As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, and in the aftermath of the mass exodus of refugees from Afghanistan, now is an excellent time to have another cold hard look at Australia’s asylum seeker policy and past. However, Sykes’ script needs further refinement to explore this content sufficiently. Blood on the Wattle, at almost two and a half hours, is not yet justified in its length. There are references to political issues with alias names that make it unclear for the audience what the characters are referring to. The story often glazes over some issues too quickly, trying to cover too much ground without sufficient depth. The dynamic between Vania and Karl is also odd, at times creepy on the part of Karl, but at other times one of seemingly consensual intimacy. It is unclear if Vania is intentionally luring Karl in or if she is actually attracted to him as more than a friend. The second act of the play was also too much of a sudden turn in the tone and style, and the audience is then sent through another 180° flip at the play’s close which is light and jovial. The show on the whole also needed further rehearsal and refinement, with too many slow or disjointed lighting, sound and audio cues and chaotic scene transitions.
Blood on the Wattle has potential, however further work is needed by both Sykes and the cast and crew to deliver the apt and timely message it is aiming to convey.