Review: Wake In Fright, Malthouse Theatre (VIC)

Zahra Newman performs Kenneth Cook's Australian Gothic story of alcoholism and machismo in this one-woman show directed by Declan Greene.
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Zahra Newman in Malthouse Theatre’s Wake in Fright. Photo credit: Pia Johnson.

John Grant is an educated Sydney man passing through Bundanyabba over the Christmas holidays. He’s a schoolteacher who doesn’t like the outback but is there for work until he pays off his student loan. Before his flight home John loses his holiday pay playing two-up while drunk. If he’s to survive, John must now comply with the locals in the stifling heat and participate in overindulgence to the point of alcoholism. Because while the European Gothic has gargoyles and cathedrals, Australian Gothic comes in the form of oxymorons, heat that could fry an egg, beer, hunting and machismo.

Kenneth Cook 1961 debut novel explored the stark differences between Australia’s cities and the outback. Cook was said to be more sympathetic to the outback than the city, while Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 adaptation put Australians in a bizarre landscape with a mindset to match.

Starring Zahra Newman and adapted for the stage by Declan Greene, who also directs, Wake in Fright twists between assaults on and seductions of the senses. Backed by audio-visual duo Friendships, the fictional town of ‘the Yabba’ – based on Broken Hill in NSW – plays out its tragedy at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in this powerful one-woman show.

Newman, a Jamaican-born Australian who won Best Actress in a Musical for her role in The Book of Mormon, says her Australianness can often be overlooked. Her refreshing take on Wake in Fright, in representing who and what we are, is a fresh re-centring of the age-old debate.

Throbbing hangovers and relentless heat in the dystopian Bundanyabba are brought to life through music and visuals as John Grant’s story spirals and intensifies. Volume evokes intensity and shock, leaving audiences firing on all neurons as the score becomes Newman’s co-star and sometimes the Yabba itself.

Newman captures a range of accents and characters from the novel and provides her own ending to Australia’s classic tale. The fourth wall is brought down from the very beginning and the only props are a microphone, a suitcase, a mascot costume, and a bedsheet.

Wake in Fright portrays cops drinking in bars, an alcoholic doctor who moved to the Yabba because it lets him practice both, and various other male characters. The only women are a barmaid and another drunk’s daughter. But there’s a hopelessness in the outback, a dryness in its attitude, and it’s all captured in Newman’s screams, monologues and conversations with herself as she takes us through John Grant’s pitiless fall into depression and madness.

4 ½ stars: ★★★★☆

Wake in Fright
A Malthouse Theatre Company production
Adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel by Declan Greene
Cast & Co-Creator: Zahra Newman
Music & Composition: Friendships
Sound Design: James Paul
Lighting & Projection Design: Verity Hampson
Stage Manager: Cecily Rabey

Malthouse Theatre, Southbank
21 June – 14 Juy 2019

James Arbuthnott
About the Author
Contributed by an ArtsHub critic.