A stunning, contemporary triumph
By Owen James
“These are urgent times,” speaks one character in the opening scene. Four words that foreshadow the next two hours, and that have stuck with me since. Anthem presents a snapshot of contemporary Australia, inspired by a piece from 21 years ago called ‘Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class?’ that was written by these same five highly influential writers, and at that time presented a snapshot of Australia in 1998. Anthem is possibly the most important piece of theatre presented in Melbourne this year, and we are so very lucky to have a collaboration of this scale to represent our turbulent country.
Five stories converge, variations on a theme by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irene Vela – all inspiring, intuitive writers whose collective voice is dynamic and conquers definition (and whose individual works of brilliance live permanently on my bookshelf). Their intertwining pieces cover racism, classism, privilege, and economic instability, and together crescendo into a call to arms against the prejudice and discrimination inherent in our stilted political system. It’s beautifully shocking and overwhelmingly resonating.
Masterful direction from Susie Dee creates a cohesive theatrical experience that is measured and expertly crafted. Her handling of this mammoth undertaking ensures the hefty thematic content is accessible throughout, creating an undoubtedly gargantuan yet also deeply personal experience for the audience. Her cast of fourteen are a perfectly balanced company, filled with the same flavours of diversity we see when we leave the theatre on the streets of Melbourne. Their varied backgrounds aid in demonstrating touching, accurate depictions of unnerving but realistic characters. Every actor’s separate performance is honest and mesmerising, but they seamlessly blend together as one perfect ensemble.
Composer Irine Vela underlines every scene with an extraordinary score that, while performed only on violin and double bass, fills the Playhouse with the sound of a full orchestra. The skilfully timed compositions focus our attention on the text with a driving pulse that continuously escalates.
I couldn’t have higher praise for Anthem. It’s a thrilling concoction by visionary professionals at the top of their game, where two hours passes like two minutes. Moving and ambitious, this flawless reflection of our “urgent times” had a terrifyingly short season of only seven performances as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival. Anthem should be compulsory viewing for every Australian concerned with taking a stand against justice and inequality – and even more compulsory for those who aren’t. Anthem will stay with me for a very long time.
Photograph by Pia Johnson