On a cold mid-winter night in Gwynneville, an inner suburb of Wollongong, a major regional city of NSW, an uplifting and theatrically hot event occurred – the premiere of an Australian musical ANVIL written by South Coast creative arts teacher Stephen Goldrick.
The premiere benefited from a long gestation of its 20 something songs by its writer, through folk festivals and concerts, starting with some kind of artistic epiphany in the Abercrombie Caves, where the bushranger Ralph Entwhistle and his “ribbon” band of followers from Bathurst held out against a formidable arrange of colonial military and police force. The show honours the fate and values of innumerable small players in Australia’s early white history, individuals faced with invidious decisions under the iron grip of British imperial power.
The show is a surprisingly rich tapestry of music styles, including classical and modern folk, love ballads (“Seven Secrets”) blues (“Not Repeatedly Yours”) a rock gallows number (“Gates of Time”), opening and closing (“Beat the Drums”) anthems, Gilbert and Sullivan ditties, choric chant, improvisations and underscoring. The actual text of the final sentence of the bushrangers is accompanied by baroque harpiscope composition. All the music is a pleasure to hear.
A larrikin playfulness of acting style, that finally assumes a Brechtian non naturalist stance, allows the diversity of music and stagecraft. Some moments – such a hands fluttering from offstage as a comedy riff – are risky, but it all hangs in a light coherence, that treads deftly through a panoply of emotions and action – ranging from sentimental, romantic, authoritarian, comedic, and melodramatic.
Lisa Lockett and Stephen Goldrick shared composition of songs, each doing half. Lisa played keyboard consummately on stage throughout the show, with Tony Lockett on electric guitar and Stephen on acoustic. Stephen was a bit of a roaming minstrel – singing, playing and acting on stage throughout. Tony also doubled as an appealing dreadlocked convict rascal.
The two leads Anvil played by Sophie Hanley and Entwhistle by Adam O’Brien were accomplished in their individual and dual roles. The ensemble of remaining actors covered a cavalcade of early nineteenth century characters. Brad Weightman demonstrated a theatrical reconciliation as he transformed from magistrate to black tracker Billy Dargin with assured ease. Feargus Manning acquitted four roles – church father, trooper, vigilante and landowner – with a physically engaging style. Emily Cassar played the winsome, iconic young Irish woman Niamh with statuesque seriousness.
ANVIL is a well written show. It has literary credentials, and in a theatre script these matter. Words matter, in lyrics and dialogue. How they are chosen, and ordered. There are no clichés in a show where a lesser writer would indulge shibboleths and lazy received sayings. There are rhymes – manifold rhymes – how they not be in a Victorian style. But they are deft – half rhymes, end rhymes mid-sentence, regular and irregular, rhymes barely there and when there for strong effect. Lyrics are finely honed, with a spare sense well filled by accompaniment.
“I heard the hangman say:
put your feet up, take a weight off,
kick your heels up, kick your boots off,
you’re standing at the gates of time.
I heard the preacher say:
let your sins go, leave them falling
put your trust in angels calling,
you’re standing at the gates of time (Gate of Time)
I’ll send you seven secrets from beneath my raging seas,
To dive into my treasure I will give you seven keys,
You’ll unlock every kindness and open every door,
In the ocean of my wonders, you will still find seven more. (Seven Secrets)”
As a result, the audience listens, and the sense of history refreshed. The climatic soliloquy by Anvil resembles a Shakespearian monologue, and has nuanced verbal attributes to match while remaining within a Victorian style
There seem to be few recent historical musicals (or plays for that matter) about white Australian history. As far as convict narratives go, there seem a feeling that this is something we did in the 1970’s. Do we cringe at the bravura of boisterous ensemble acting that we discovered 40 years ago? If the New Zealand Pop Up Globe company can treat Shakespeare with rambunctious glee, has Australian theatre begun to take itself too seriously? Is there a continuation of a cultural cringe and of cultural wars that minimises the chance to tell a progressive history of rights and working life that relates to modern society, and counters the half-baked nationalism perpetuated publicly in recent years.
Goldrick’s ANVIL does just that. It challenges the fourth wall several times – sometimes for comic effect (teasing audience members to join in action) but also dialectically challenging the audience to think. The last moment has Niamh rhetorically asking the audience what they thought of what they just saw. Has our modern society really learnt from the past?
If anything dialogue could debate ideas more as well as expound plot and character. The show uses suitably decorated tarot cards projected as a narrative device, and sometimes these are commented on. Perhaps a further narrative, ideological voice could be interjected from one character, to accompany some if not all of the cards. The show maintains a quasi Brechtian quality, through its relaxed concert style and self conscious diversity in music and staging. The ironic narrative/narrator (not necessarily featured or very long) would well supplement and clarify what is already there.
By way of gentle suggestion, some of the personal plot in the first act, before the injustice, could be shortened, and the end of Act One needs a musical refrain. The Act is perhaps a few minutes too long. The second act could include scenes of freedom and dreaming – in the country and caves – under stars or in bush, and could end also with a song or refrain, continued after Niamh’s interjection to audience. The audience does need to know when acts end.
However, any suggestions for change are a minor issue. The show is already accomplished and developed. It is important for the little Workshop theatre where it was presented, as well as regional arts in Wollongong. There are limited opportunities for new work in the city. The work proves audiences are responsive (and willing to stand on opening night), as they are in Sydney, to the new as much or more so as they are to productions of Broadway musicals or modern classics, or out of town touring shows.
There is much talk of “the great Australian musical”. ANVIL may not be that all of that, but it is certainly “a great Australian musical”.
Stephen Goldrick’s ANVIL is playing the Wollongong Workshop Theatre, Gipps Road, Gwynneville until July 27,2019.
Featured image – Brad Weightman as the Police Magistrate and Fergus Manning as Father John Terry