Review: Wake In Fright

Beer, babes and brutality in chilling adaptation 

By Leeor Adar

Australia, the land of plenty, the land of expanding planes, and dust. Dust as far as the eye can see. No sea in sight to quench the traveller’s hungry eyes, just the heat rising from the earth.

Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake In Fright, is a jolting horror of the kind of underbelly Australia that a city slicker would gladly forget. The 1971 film directed by Ted Kotcheff finely and fantastically brought this horrendous fever-dream to life, and essentially became a cult film for its notorious representation of hunting the ‘roo.

I am therefore very pleased to see Declan Greene (Melancholia, Pompeii L.A., The Homosexuals, or Faggots) adapt and direct Cook’s work for the Malthouse stage. In this incarnation, Wake in Fright, a usually bloke-soaked nightmare, is spectacularly performed by one woman – Zahra Newman, who boldly embodies the terror and toxicity of masculinity.

The 70-minute performance, much like the sleepiness of the town Bundanyabba (“The Yabba”), begins rather benignly as Newman struts about all-beared-up as Lead Ted, the friendly 1990s bear, teaching the children of Broken Hill about lead poisoning – a first foray into the horror of the night. During Newman’s playful introduction, we are treated to a talk about immigration, racial issues and more of the gamut of the daily-woke blogosphere. I liked how Newman challenged the audience, but I admit I wanted to see the show unfold rather than be subjected to a surface-level string of views without proper unpacking. Wake in Fright is itself a cruel truth about the worst of our nation.

With excellent lighting and projection design from Verity Hampson, and music and composition from friendships, we descend into the gloom with the skilful Newman. I am truly, honestly, terrified.

John Grant, an educated fellow, finds himself waiting for a plane back to Sydney in the remote Yabba. Coaxed into a brutal bender by local cop, Crawford, he soon finds himself in a two-up joint, rendered penniless and with a missed flight back to the world of the living. Stranded, he takes a ride with a local into the outback, and so begins Grant’s final mad descent into the Yabba culture of beer, babes and brutality.

Hampson’s projection design coupled with the intense beats of friendships DJing in the corner of the stage turned the Beckett theatre into a hellish nightclub. As an audience we feel strapped in for a ride we don’t want, sucked into the psyche of Grant as he battles his way through the unknown cruelties of this world. It feels indeed like a rung of hell, with no end in sight.

This is a thoroughly ingenious modern take on Wake in Fright. Greene’s work is compelling and effective. The Malthouse has shown again that some of its finest work is one woman on stage taking a male-dominated story and making it her own. Newman joins the ranks of Pamela Rabe in The Testament of Mary, and Alison Whyte in The Bloody Chamber. You really can’t get better than that, mate.

Wake In Fright runs until 14 July 2019 at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9685 5111.

Photograph: Pia Johnson