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Australia Felix - Review by Rhonda Hancock

In a niche on the Bridge Street facade of the Department of Lands Building in Sydney, there is a sculpture of Surveyor-General Major Thomas Mitchell. This is one of the many memorial statues and plaques in his honour scattered across Australia. A celebrated explorer, Mitchell has a town, a suburb, a highway, an electorate, and even a cockatoo named after him. One of his most well-known expeditions was in 1836, when he travelled through the western regions of Victoria, and was so impressed by the rich grasslands that he named it ‘Australia Felix’ (Latin for “fortunate southern land”).

When I went to school, we were taught that early Australian explorers such as Major Mitchell had a positive influence on the development and advancement of the colony, opening up new “undiscovered” lands and paving the way for expansion and pastoral settlement - with much of the historical material presented focussing on the achievements of white settlers or “convicts made good”. The convict or Aboriginal perspectives were never acknowledged, Today, of course, I am far more enlightened and have a much wider understanding of our early history the impacts of colonisation

The notion that there is often a dark and untold truth behind many of our well-known historical narratives is what attracted me to the play, Australia Felix.  Written and directed by Geoffrey Sykes (and based on a true story), the play examines Australian colonial history by exploring the perspectives of a runaway convict, a leading explorer, landowners and magistrates of the time, and the knowledge of the Aboriginal people. I had done my research before attending the show, and was looking forward to immersing myself in a fresh imagining of this particular chapter in Australian history. The play definitely did not disappoint.

The Richard Wherrett Studio (at Roslyn Packer Theatre) was a well-chosen venue for this production.  A converted bond store, the studio features the original brickwork, high ceilings, iron bark beams and remnants of the original industrial equipment. When entering the space, I found the atmosphere was somewhat eerie and very reminiscent of a nineteenth century gaol – this was enhanced by strategically placed lighting on specific features of the building. This obviously achieved the intended ambiance, given that the play is set on the eve of the execution of the runaway convict, George Clarke.

A small, t-shaped thrust stage, furnished simply, represented the intimate performance space of a travelling show – this vision was completed with a backdrop created in the likeness of a sideshow banner, emblazoned with slogans and historic images related to the show.  Visual designers Aschara Pothmann and Jonathon King did a great job ensuring that the set, props, costumes and program design all enhanced and supported the overall vision of the production.

The play followed the format of a musical revue, performed by a travelling theatre troupe in the 1830s. At the time, hangings were publicly advertised and often drew a good crowd, and (as was common tradition) entertainment was provided by itinerant performers who would of dramatise the life of the convicted through song and verse.

As the play opened, we met the members of “Macnamara’s All-Australian Theatre” – John Macnamara (played by Rick Butler), Ned (played by Mark Alexander), Merry May (played by Kate Stewart), Sarah (played by Tisha Kelemen) and Ruth (played by Freya Moore). The players then began to recount the story of “The Life, Tales, Trials, Sentencing and Execution of Clarke the Flying Barber”. As the narrative unfolded, the players deftly took on the roles of the characters in the story – London magistrate, George Clarke, Elizabeth Harris, Benjamin Singleton, trooper, Mrs Smith, Mrs Cheatem, Justice Clarke, Major Campbell, Thomas Mitchell, Mr Justice Stephens, Attorney General NSW, Colonial Secretary NSW, Mr Justice Montagu, John Lee, and Rev William Bedford. Each new character was signified by a slight costume change – the addition (or removal) of a jacket, shawl or cloak – and use of props which were placed strategically around the performance space.  This was done quickly and efficiently, keeping the fast pace of the show.  It is an absolute credit to the five actors who were able to portray multiple personalities– switching in and out of roles while still creating and maintaining each distinct character’s traits.

Despite the gloomy (and often disheartening) story line, the musical revue format was very entertaining, under the musical direction of Kate Stewart. Woven into the narrative were songs written by Steve Wood – these catchy ballads were both sobering and uplifting, and told the story beautifully. The strength of the cast was not only in their acting prowess, but also their ability to sing and produce euphonious harmonies, sometimes accompanying themselves on a guitar, in true travelling minstrel style. I was particularly impressed with the use of furniture and prop pieces as percussion devices, as an accompaniment to the rhythmic chants and ballads, and also to create powerful sound effects.

This thought- provoking play certainly gave a fresh perspective on colonial history, and how it has shaped Australian identity and values.  The story of the association between Clarke the convict and Mitchell the explorer is one worth telling, and Sykes does it so well. It was both entertaining and intriguing, and certainly questioned the notion of Australia being a “fortunate” land.

I give this production 4.5 out of 5 runaway convicts

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