Powerful performances wall to wall in this gritty, poignant and highly relevant debut play.

Wharf 1 Theatre, Walsh Bay
June 5, 2015

Across the world, in cities from Sydney to London, Berlin to New York, the creeping capitalist phenomenon of so-called “gentrification” has seen the slow, steady erosion of communities on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, priced-out of neighbourhoods transformed by property developers from no-go to des-rez.

In Sydney, the indigenous communities have found themselves on the front-line of this struggle. Pushed into slum housing, viewed as an inconvenience to the priorities of urban refurbishment, the philosophical and historical resonances of this contemporary battle with the dark, blood-soaked centuries of Aboriginal oppression since the arrival of the first fleet is a stark and persistent reminder to the Koori people of why they should fight for their right for “a place and a say.”

In tackling this thorny and complex subject, actor-turned-playwright Kylie Coolwell set herself an unenviable challenge. However the result is a masterfully articulated and sensitively observed debut play that uses the universally familiar prism of the home to communicate a very culturally specific story.

Set in the James Cook and Joseph Banks Towers, The Battle of Waterloo, focuses on an archetypal indigenous family. Not all ties here are blood, but the ages-old responsibilities of the community to take care of its own draws these characters to the home of Aunty Mavis (Roxanne McDonald), where she lives with her nieces, Cassie (Shari Sebbens) and Sissy (Shareena Clanton). These two sisters represent the far ends of the cultural spectrum: Cassie is focused on bettering herself, taking a TAFE course in fashion and design in the hope of a better future, while her sister Sissy is trapped by drug addiction and an abusive relationship, veering wildly between furious desperation and deluded mania.

The burden of responsibility in this family is on Cassie, who must care for her elderly and unwell aunt, while attempting to keep her sister on the rails, all while preparing for a crucial graduation show. This fragile balancing act is thrown into chaos when Cassie’s old boyfriend, Ray (Luke Carroll), released from prison after three years, expects to pick-up where the couple left off. Despite his genuinely good intentions, and a vow to follow his girlfriend’s example and turn over a new leaf, old friends such as Leon (Guy Simon) pull Ray back into the destructive habits that threaten to shatter the delicate hope of future life with Cassie in a city that is increasingly unwelcoming.

(Photo: Lisa Tomasetti)

There’s a risk in a narrative as superficially soap opera-esque as this of stumbling over numerous clichés, however Coolwell’s fast paced, blue-tinged dialogue, peppered with colloquialisms, feels effortlessly authentic. These characters are allegories for any number of Aboriginal families in cities across the country, yet Coolwell is able to offer a beautifully nuanced, intimate quality to the interactions of the cast that makes the action feel deeply personal. As a new play there is of course some opportunities for editing, particularly in the second act which looses a little momentum in places, but with a running time of over two hours this is a triumph of a debut work by Coolwell.

Great credit must go to the entire cast, who offer unanimously powerful accounts throughout, including the two supporting cast members, Billy McPherson as the roguishly charismatic Uncle Milo, and James Slee as the easily impressionable young footy-hopeful Jack, who shelters from the horrible realities of his own home at Aunty Mavis’s. It’s difficult to single any one performer out, but Clanton’s account of Sissy, seething with rage, trapped by the hopelessness of domestic violence and drug addiction was profoundly revelatory. Director Sarah Goodes has strategically avoided sugar coating any of the grubbier scenarios in the script, and in unflinchingly keeping us face to face with these sometimes comical, sometimes repulsive, sometimes heartbreaking scenes, they pack an even more powerful punch.

Designer Renée Mulder’s multi-level set plays with our perception of the environment, meaning the to-scale footprint of Aunty Mavis’s flat remains both narratively and literally at the centre of this universe. It is the anchor that draws these characters together, while aspects of their lives crumble around them. Suddenly it becomes all too clear why this really is something worth fighting for.

Sydney Theatre Company and Allens present The Battle of Waterloo, at Wharf 1 Theatre, Walsh Bay, until June 27.

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