Review by Miranda Michalowski
Linden, Victoria is a little rural town. Nothing special. Its greatest achievement is the fact that it continues to exist.
But what would happen if someone tried to return this little Aussie town to its former glory? Would it be possible to Make Linden Great Again?
Alexander Lee-Reker’s political parable ‘The Linden Solution’ presents its audience with this provocative question. Produced by the indie theatre company Ratcatch and directed by Camilla Turnbull, ‘The Linden Solution’ tells the story of a young civil servant, Hannah Marr (Laura Djanegara), who lives in the fictional town of Linden. She has high hopes for the town known only for its valuable soil, having witnessed it become wracked by unemployment, crime and apathy. After the death of the mayor, Hannah devises a plan to return the town to its former prosperity. She joins forces with her former university debate companion, Daniel Lemmey (Mason Phoumirath), unconscious of the fascist implications of her proposed solutions.
The pair plan to run a puppet candidate for the office of mayor; the bumbling veteran Gus Joyner. Soon Hannah and Daniel are running the town: they clean up the skate park, set up a youth group ‘Sprouts’ and even establish a Neighbourhood Watch division. At first, it seems as though the town of Linden is on its way up. But before Hannah knows what she has started, Linden stumbles down a slippery slope into the realm of totalitarian control.
Hannah Marr, played by Laura Djanegara, is the heart of the play. She handles the complex storytelling with skill, inviting the audience to trust her, believing in her love of this small town. She directly addresses the audience, taking on the role of a narrator. Mason Phoumirath gives a strong performance as her accomplice Daniel Lemmey, however, his character’s motivations for taking control of Linden are less clear. The show finds a radiant comic presence in Lib Campbell, who seamlessly jumps between roles. These include the former mayor Gladys and the youth outreach officer, Nina Beedle. Patrick Cullen rounds out the ensemble as both the puppet mayor Gus Joyner and the“ginger white knight of the Aussie far-right”, Aaron Boorman. While the roles of Hannah and Daniel are played realistically, the other roles are closer to caricatures. This distinction in acting styles is not too jarring and allows for needed moments of comic relief.
The show has a cinematic quality, with Cameron Smith incorporating archive footage including news interviews. When ‘The Linden Solution’ is presented, video footage of leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill plays on the screen. We are prompted to question our trust in charismatic leaders who persuade us with Orwellian doublespeak. The lighting design is effective, creating shifts between history, the internal worlds of characters and the present action. The sound design is haunting and atmospheric, with whistling music evoking the rebellion song of ‘The Hunger Games’.
The beginning of the play relies heavily on exposition and the pace slowed at times. However, this pace built later on and led us towards a deeply disturbing ending. In the director’s notes, Turnbull states that ‘The Linden Solution’ may be a fictional story, set in a fictional town, but the underlying warning is very, very real. It is easy to see a parallel between the events in fictional Linden and the Capitol Riot in Washington earlier this year. Turnbull reminds us that in 2020, the chief of ASIO said that the Australian “extreme-right wing threat is real and it is growing”. While audiences may perceive this threat to be foreign, Alexander Lee-Rekers challenges us to recognise that these supremacist ideologies are around us, lurking in our very own backyards. Late in the play, Hannah comments that the alt-right members of Linden look “surprisingly normal”, and that the locals remarked, “they say a few things we all think deep down”.
The emotional impact of ‘The Linden Solution’ depends on our empathy for Hannah Marr. We understand that she wants her hometown to prosper and that she believes her actions are in favour of the greater good. But Lee-Rekers forces us to recognise that the line between strong leadership and neo-fascist control is a line that can easily be crossed; that when fuel is given to violent ideologies, it won’t take long for everything to go up in flames.