Theatre review: Unprecedented, HotHouse Theatre

Campion Decent’s latest play is a verbatim response to the 2019-2020 bushfires: a moving, angry and surprisingly funny work about government obfuscation and climate change.

The devastating events of 2019-2020’s Black Summer remain etched into the collective memory of all Australians.

The fire season began early, in June 2019, in Queensland, and peaked over December 2019 and January 2020. By the time it ended, at least 34 people had died as a direct result of the fires. Another 445 deaths were attributed to the choking shrouds of smoke that spread across the country during those hellish months, according to the Medical Journal of Australia.

For city dwellers, normally far removed from the reality of bushfires save for regular updates online or on the evening news, these fires were inescapable. Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney were blanketed in smoke for weeks on end, and when it rained, the rain was thick with ash from the multiple fires burning out of control across the country.

And in places like Cobargo, where four lives were lost and hundreds of properties destroyed in the village and surrounding district, the impact was unfathomable.

Campion Decent’s new play Unprecedented (commissioned by Playwriting Australia and HotHouse Theatre) explores not only the impact of the fires themselves, but the failure of successive Australian governments to respond in any meaningful way to the numerous inquiries that inevitably follow such events.

Indeed, the frustrating frequency of such inquiries (as the play notes, ‘there have been 57 formal fire-related inquiries, reviews and royal commissions since 1939’) and their failure to address the root cause of such disasters is established in the opening scene of the play, which features lines delivered at the 1939 Royal Commission into the Black Friday fires by Judge L E B Stretton, Chair:

‘The rich plains, denied their beneficent rains, lay bare and baking; and the forests, from the foothills to the alpine heights, were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone; the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture. Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy.’

Stretton’s words seem frighteningly portentous given the summers we face this year and beyond, with the hot dry conditions of El Niño now following the increased rainfall and lush growth facilitated by several years of La Niña conditions.

Not that the flourishing undergrowth in our bushlands should be our primary concern, as Decent makes clear.

Rather than focusing on ‘the thorny issue of prescribed burning or fuel reduction,’ as Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan did at the 2010 Senate Inquiry into The incidence and severity of bushfires across Australia, the play demands that the Australian Government of the day – regardless of which political party is currently in power or how many new coal mines they have greenlit – should be focused on the extreme weather conditions caused by climate change.

The unparalleled ferocity of the 2019-2020 fires and the extreme heat they generated meant that previously established facts about fuel reduction and fire breaks are now almost irrelevant. The Black Summer bushfires generated their own weather conditions: fire-generated thunderstorms or ‘pyrocumulonimbus events if you want to be real fancy’. As Decent’s script explains:

‘So, this is where you have fires burning in heavily forested areas. And they generate their own weather. They generate their own thunderstorms. They change winds at the fire front and aloft, above the fires. They increase transport of burning embers. They have additional sources of lightning to start new fires, and at more spatial scales we get tornados and extreme winds.

‘So southern Australia has, in the evidence we have, seen an increased number of high-risk days for fire-generated thunderstorms and the projections are for that trend to continue.’

The spiritual successor to Decent’s Embers, which premiered at HotHouse Theatre in 2006, Unprecedented is, like its predecessor, a verbatim theatre piece in which the audience hear the exact words spoken by the likes of former Prime Minister (and also Minister for Health, Finance, Treasury, Home Affairs, Industry, Science, Energy and Resources) Scott Morrison throughout the years the play is set – though with the occasional creative embellishment.

Decent is to be congratulated for both the ambition and breadth of Unprecedented, which brings into stark relief the way the ferocity and challenge of the 2019-2020 bushfires were fuelled by the allegedly ‘contested science’ of climate change, as well as the failure of multiple governments – especially the Morrison Government – to recognise and respond to our new reality.

Our planet is boiling, and Decent’s anger over the government’s failure to address climate change is palpable in Unprecedented. At times his anger morphs into pointed but occasionally heavy-handed satire: then-Treasurer Scott Morrison’s ‘This is coal’ speech in the Federal Parliament features prominently, with Morrison subsequently evoking Tolkien’s Gollum, caressing his lump of coal and calling it ‘My precious’ as he loiters in the background.

One amusing scene, inspired by television quiz shows, features an actor playing journalist Jennifer Byrne; she hosts a program called Disastermind, featuring a retired firefighter being quizzed on his specialist subject: the Black Summer bushfires.

Morrison’s infamous Hawaii holiday and his ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’ excuse also make a colourful appearance.

The cast of ‘Unprecedented’. Photo: Jasper Wood.

In other scenes, Decent uses his considerable skills as a playwright to plunge us directly into the inferno, evoking terror with the simplest of phrases: ‘One word: Mallacoota’.

Here, Decent’s judicious use of words uttered by community witnesses, coupled with the skilled work of lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis and sound designer/composer Brendon Boney, are responsible for one of the most painful and powerful moments of the play.

Thankfully, in both the recent run in fire-affected communities and its previous Albury premiere, a pre-show introduction made it plain that anyone triggered or traumatised by the events they were watching could retreat temporarily to a relaxed space at the rear of the venue, where they would be supported and comforted before returning to their seats when they felt ready to do so.

This degree of care for the audience was matched by the skilled and assured direction of HotHouse Theatre’s Artistic Director Karla Conway, who ensured that, at every turn, the play’s shifts from tragedy to comedy – such as an ensemble performance of US satirist Tom Lehrer’s Cold War song ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’ immediately after the traumatic Mallacoota sequence – provided not only temporary respite from the horror, but also an elegantly controlled transition between moods and scenes.

Not every moment of the play was as successful – there was an occasional sense that Decent had been hampered in one or two scenes by his reliance on verbatim text instead of summarising dialogue more succinctly or dramatically, though this is arguably more a fault of verbatim theatre as a genre rather than Decent as a writer.

That said, there were certainly moments where Decent was confident enough to craft the text in his own words, and one wishes he had done so in a scene late in the play where a representative of the 2020 Royal Commission noted that the Black Summer bushfires ‘pushed us beyond our limits of understanding, and it pushed us beyond our governance arrangements … it highlights the fact that we crossed a threshold’. A stirring speech was required, and the original text uttered at the Royal Commission didn’t feel quite dramatic enough for the occasion.

Read: The Culture for Climate report

The bureaucratic language that makes up much of Unprecedented also presented challenges for the talented six-member cast, who occasionally stumbled over the odd phrase or sentence despite having performed the work since early August – no surprise given that the play, unlike traditional scripts, contains few opportunities for genuine dialogue and the call and response style of conversation that helps actors recall and deliver their lines. That said, performances were uniformly excellent, with Ari Maza Long and Rachel McNamara especially impressive – both delivered performances that prompted tears in this particular critic.

Collectively, the cast also conjured tears, with a late sequence evoking the grief felt for those lost in fires especially heartbreaking – a moment where once again, Decent’s script, Conway’s direction, Sophie Woodward’s elegant but evocative production design, and the performances combined to create a potent and deeply moving moment of theatrical magic.

Sophie Woodward’s production design embodies the green shoots of hope evoked in Decent’s script. Photo: Jasper Wood.

As this critique of Unprecedented is written, the Albanese Labor Government has shown ‘stunning hypocrisy’ in its response to fossil fuel production and the extraction industries, according to Australian organisation, the Climate Council.

More Black Summer-style events are inevitable – unless we work collectively to repair the planet we collectively share. Such changes may be challenging, but they are also clearly necessary, as Decent’s script aptly demonstrates:

‘In Wiradjuri we have this word, this phrase “yindyamarra” which, at its simplest, means with “respect and honour”. But it also means how we should live, which is to go gently and go slowly, and if we were to think about that as our way of living, think about the impact that we have on all else, then we could really start moving forward. And, yes it will hurt, but I don’t know that it will hurt any more than where we are now.’

A HotHouse Theatre production
By Campion Decent
Directed by Karla Conway
Producer: Beck Palmer
Production Design: Sophie Woodward
Lighting Design: Katie Sfetkidis
Sound Design/Composer: Brendon Boney
Associate Producer First Nations: Tiffany Ward
Cast: Craig Alexander, Noel Hodda, Lisa Maza, Ari Maza Long, Rachel McNamara and Billy McPherson

Bright Community Centre, Saturday 9 September
Season concluded

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts