The Savages of Wirramai

An outstanding ensemble performance and a masterfully written and monstrous patriarch feature in this new family drama.
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The family drama is a story that can be told in as many permutations as there are families, because it’s rarely the facts that matter. A good story always helps but what a family drama speaks to is the strange paradox of family life. By definition, every human has a family, even if they’ve never met them, but every family is different. As common as our shared anatomy but as intensely private as the parts of our body we keep covered in front of all but a select few. Those inside the family see the fermenting discontents in high definition detail while those outside it see a family just like any other. Yet our families are one of the most powerful influences on who we become as adults, which makes seeing inside the complex inner sanctum of another family so comforting and so resonant. It’s a resonance that The Savages of Wirramai strikes with deft precision.

The premise for the story is a wonderfully simple one: family members returning to their country home for their annual gathering but of course there is much simmering below the surface. Of the three adult children, one is a recovering drug addict, one a self-important city bourgeois and the third a very self-conscious, single 30-something who feels obliged to care for her ailing parents. The parents are a mother dominated by a misguided desire to keep the peace and a callous, domineering father.

The father was fascinating. Complex and deeply conflicted he was at times an unmitigated bastard but his cruelty was so palpably underpinned by trauma that you can’t help but empathise with this man. His tirades against his daughters, underpinned by his belief that his suffering in the war and support for the family give him an unimpeachable authority, are delivered with such convection that at times you begin to believe him even as you berate yourself for doing so, because his treatment of his family is at times truly vile. That’s not to take anything away from the other members of the family because The Savages of Wirramai is an outstanding ensemble performance.

The performance are underpinned by an excellent script by Sandy Fairthorne who continues to impress. She subtly weaves the story together, cleverly teasing out the dirty secret that is the cause of so much of the family trouble. It is alluded but never said, like all family secrets; known to all but never nakedly stated. It’s a quintessentially Australian family story, of which there are precious few – and where many Australian family dramas skirt the service or lapse into sentimentality, The Savages of Wirramai penetrates to a place of real honesty and vulnerability.  Simple and powerful, it leaves you wanting to slam your fists into the family dinner table and throw all the unspoken issues onto the table, precisely because you know you won’t.

La Mama has unearthed a gem that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

Raring: 4 stars out of 5

The Savages of Wirramai
Written by Sandy Fairthorne
Directed by Kevin Summers
Performed by Kirsty Child, Cherie Mills, Kirsty Snowden, Anna den Hartog, Liam Gillespie and David Macrae
Set design by Sophie Woodward
Lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis

La Mama Theatre, Carlton
9-20 September          

Raphael Solarsh
About the Author
Raphael Solarsh is writer from Melbourne whose work has appeared in The Guardian, on Writer’s Bloc and in a collection of short stories titled Outliers: Stories of Searching. When not seeing shows, he writes fiction and tweets at @RS_IndiLit.