Image by Tracey Schramm.
In 2011, the Australian Theatre for Young People (AYTP) began a series of residencies in the Northern Territory town of Katherine. Using experiences and observations gained overt the next two years, writers Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair have created a play in an attempt to understand what growing up in a remote Australian community is like. That play is Sugarland.
Sugarland is not sugar-coated. Nor should it be. True to its origins, it is about worlds colliding, about issues that are not so much clear-cut black-and-white as they are big, immediate and extraordinarily real. Following the lives of five teenagers, it is about growing up in a country where rules and government schemes are often counter-intuitive and do more harm than good. But amongst the politics and racism and bureaucracy, the five young people in Sugarland navigate their way through this uncertain terrain with love, grace, humour, resilience and a desire to keep going.
On Jacob Nash’s rough square of red earth, the five teenagers along with a social worker, create an intimate patchwork of stories – from the humorous to the touching and bleakly real, Coopes and Blair are not afraid to show life as it is in remote communities, in all its raucous rambunctious and emotion-drenched glory. Erica (Elena Foreman) is a girl who has erected a defensive wall of impassioned indifference to combat her constant moving around the country, but it also hides a tendency for self-mutilation. Aaron (Narek Arman) is an Iraqi boy who loves the land around Katherine, who seems at home among the patchwork community. Nina (Dubs Yunupingu) is a girl with a voice that could command the wet season to do her bidding, a girl who feels trapped by her family and desperately seeks a way out. Charles (Michael Cameron) is a boy who seems content to go with the flow, and there is a charming side to him underneath all the bluster. Hunter Page-Lochard’s Jimmy is a close cousin to his Ruben in Belvoir’s Brother’s Wreck; a young man adrift after an injured hand renders him unable to play football, there is something affecting about his swagger and adrenaline-fuelled antics. As Penny, the teacher-cum-social worker, Rachael Coopes tries to hold each of the five teenagers on the straight and narrow, but it is never easy, and she too seems to be coming into direct confrontation with the system which seems so heavily stacked against the young people. Here, for these five teenagers, ‘the system’ is simply the world in which they find themselves trapped, as they try to work out who they are, what they are doing, where they are going, and what matters to them. It’s not an easy eighty minutes of theatre, but it is beautiful, rich, and rewarding. Jez McGuire’s lighting is simple but rich; Guy Webster’s sound design is finely attuned to the world of each of the characters, and creates a sense of place effortlessly; Ruby Langton-Batty’s costumes are barely costumes but rather clothes, well-suited to the characters.
Coopes and Blair use the analogy of a river several times to bring home the idea of interconnectedness and responsibility rather than blame. ‘Lots of little rivers; one big river,’ is the phrase used. A river that was once clear and pure; a river which should be clear again after the floods but isn’t. A river that is polluted and sick, affected by both sides of the land. ‘How are we going to fix country?’ they ask, and it’s a sentiment which is shared by many productions this year – how are we going to fix the country we are living in?
There is no easy answer to this question, but rather one that can only come through a conversation being had, between young and old, from both sides of the river, right around the country. A harrowing yet beautiful new play, Sugarland has the capacity and fierceness of spirit to start a conversation amongst a younger generation; by the time they join together and become the imminent flood they can be, perhaps only then may we be able to begin to fix [the] country.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Director: Fraser Corfield, David Page
Writer: Rachael Coopes with Wayne Blair
Team: Set Design Jacob Nash
Costume Design Ruby Langton-Batty
Lighting Design Juz McGuire
Sound Design Guy Webster
Stage Manager: Caitlin Chatfield
Cast: Narek Arman, Michael Cameron, Rachael Coopes, Elena Foreman, Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu.
ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf
27 August – 13 September