This one-hander starring and co-created by Zahra Newman begins with a prologue featuring a cute-but-creepy bear mascot and a conversation the actor may or may not have had with an Uber driver about where each of them was from. He hailed from Broken Hill, which Newman observed was struggling with an ongoing problem of lead poisoning due to mining.

Wake in FrightMalthouse Theatre’s Wake in Fright. Photo © Pia Johnson

Broken Hill, the outback town where the 1971 film adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s novel, Wake in Fright, was shot. It’s a story full of Aussie archetypes and contradictions, which were indirectly touched on in that uncomfortable conversation between Newman and the driver. Post-prologue, she grapples with them mightily, asking what it means to be Australian. What it means to be a ‘good bloke’, and whether we are as hospitable to strangers as we might like to think.

Written and directed by Declan Greene, this new adaptation of Wake in Fright makes a few telling changes to the tale, most notably the ultimate fate of main protagonist, John Grant. Essentially it’s the same, however: this young teacher stops in the remote, rough-and-ready mining town of Bundanyabba, where he is sucked into its black hole of alcohol, gambling, sex, violence and all-round toxic masculinity.

Wake in Fright, Zahra NewmanZahra Newman in Malthouse Theatre’s Wake in Fright. Photo © Zahra Newman

From John to the local copper and the alcoholic doctor, Newman plays a series of male characters (and, briefly, one marginalised young woman) in a loose conversational style. She wears practical black clothing, on a black stage that is bare but for the brief appearance of an old suitcase. Newman conjures character predominantly through her voice: different, well executed accents, and mood and manner that ranges from aggressive friendliness to drunken despair.

This focus on the voice is heightened by the microphone she uses throughout. It’s increasingly important for the disarming vocal distortions that become more frequent and confusing as John descends further into a days-long alcohol-fuelled nightmare.

Sound is indeed crucial, and at times intentionally overwhelming in this production. Nicholas James Brown’s soundscape is like a manifestation of Bundanyabba’s malevolent energy, but in a contemporary, urban way that this Wake in Fright’s audience can relate to: driving electronic beats convey the dangerous excitement of the two-up game, for example, and harsh, discordant noise help make John’s final, feverish breakdown a visceral experience for the audience.

Zahra Newman, Wake in FrightZahra Newman in Malthouse Theatre’s Wake in Fright. Photo © Zahra Newman

Verity Hampson’s lighting, together with occasional animated projections by Misha Grace (Brown’s collaborator in their multimedia Friendships project), also convey emotional energy in striking, sometimes confronting ways. During the two-up game, lurid projections, and a roulette wheel of bright lights flashing on and off around Newman, combine with Brown’s music to make this scene a highlight. Brightly coloured powder, then water, also briefly fall from above late in proceedings, rounding out an audio-visual concept that leaps over any need for a set to create a sense of place or mood.

Having one woman on a bare inner-city Melbourne stage conjure Wake in Fright’s masculine self-destruction in the outback is an audacious idea. By focusing on the power of the voice, sound, light and darkness to provoke the audience’s subconscious, Newman and Greene make it work, leaving plenty of questions, doubts and fears dangling in the play’s final, pitch-black moment.

Wake in Fright is at the Beckett Theatre, Melbourne, until July 14


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