From time to time a new Australian production comes along that contains all the elements of great theatre – good writing, direction, acting and the accompanying creatives of lighting, sound, costume and set design.
SUGARLAND is all this and more. Playwrights Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair spent two months in the Northern Territory top end town of Katherine from 2011 to research their new play that was commissioned by ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People).
They engaged in workshops at the high schools and youth hostels, gathering stories on camera and forging wonderful new friendships. What has resulted is a fresh and profound look at the teenagers who live in the remote, regional towns of Australia and the problems they have to negotiate, “problems that are as big, as real and as confronting as anything in the adult world”, say co-directors Fraser Corfield and David Page. “And they face it with humour, with love and extraordinary resilience”.
The characters are diverse and complex and the cast, without exception, are all talented and in touch with their environment and its powerful effect on them.
Of the three boys and two girls in the play, the character Erica, (played with great angst and insight by Elena Foreman), is perhaps the most transformed by the end of the play. Leading a transient life from town to town with her mother and now in Year 11, she has stopped trying to fit in. Her feelings of displacement and anger begin to ease as she may finally have found some real friends.
Nina, the headstrong and smart girl, is played with great sensitivity and strength by dancer Dubs Yunupingu. She has made an effortless transition from dancer to actor and has a great emotional grasp on her character.
The three boys are all fascinating characters. Jimmy (played with fire and dynamic energy by Hunter Page-Lochard), has to deal with some serious self-destructive urges.
Iraqi boy, Aaron, is played by 17- year -old Narek Arman with wonderful humour and he, like the others, is trying to fit in. He has a great control over the slang and style expected of him by his fellow students.
A boxer like his dad, Charles (played by Michael Cameron), is a strong and interesting character. He and Erica come from the most middle class families, but don’t want to reflect this.
Co-writer Rachael Coopes plays Miss Penny, a dedicated, hardworking public servant. Her character is very believable and well rounded. Her job is a thankless one, fraught with obstacles, but her compassion, cunning and honesty makes a difference to these Katherine teenagers. She is more like their mother than a government employee, enticing the kids to go to school, understanding their problems, counselling them and dealing with the ridiculous orders that come from the ‘faceless’ men in Canberra.
Miss Penny organises a singing competition with prize money. One of the highlights of the play is hearing the different songs they sing, sung from the heart, reflecting their individual feelings.
This is a play that makes you all the wiser afterwards. There are many familiar attitudes and problems. This is the heart of Australia, a place that is well worth the visit.
SUGARLAND plays the ATYP Studio Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney, from 27th August to 13th September, 2014.