Actor, writer and director, Alex Kendall Robson is elated that his most recent venture The Tale of the Great Emu War is finally making its stage première as part of this year’s Sydney Fringe Festival. Written and directed by Alex and intended for performance in 2021 but stymied by Covid, this quirky tragicomedy is based upon the campaign to curb the large emu population ravaging soldier-settlement farms in Western Australia in 1932.
The seeds for The Tale were first planted as far back as 2015 when then “country kid” Alex and his mates were playing the game Cards for Humanity. The stranger-than-fiction scenario caught Alex’s imagination and, as he mined the sensationally written and humiliating critical news articles of the time, he saw the potential for developing the events into a verbatim-docudrama. While Alex says the play is written “tongue-in-cheek”, he adds that the performance includes some “incredibly dark moments”.
As Alex points out, the historical situation evokes the injustices of the colonial narrative, but he has highlighted poor governance and governmental reliance on violence. The governmental solution to providing for veterans was ill-conceived as few had experience of farming and the acreage allotted to them was on the less arable margins of the wheat-belt area. Promised subsidies had not eventuated. Rabbit-proof fencing funnelled emus into WA.
Migrating emus were unlikely to pass up the opportunity of taking food from the outlying newly cultivated land with access to water, which added to the distress of the farmers. When the desperate soldiers-turned-farmers protested it was not to the Department of Agriculture but to the Ministry of Defence. The response was to send several highly trained soldiers with Lewis machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition to the area. What could go wrong?
For Alex, the key characters of The Tale are four very articulate emus. One of the mythologies of the Emu War is that these six-feet-plus birds – with toe joints that enabled them to turn as fast as a cat – won. In fact, they lost once culling replaced direct onslaught. Giving the emus a voice is a clever corrective to the dictum that history is written by the victors who erase the experience of the defeated. Alex gives the emus the opportunity to put their side, and their voice is “the more humane”.
“Do emus have a collective memory and is it possible that one day they will mount a counter-offensive?” asks Alex. He dreams of a possible sequel and let’s hope it is a dream that can be realised.
The Tale of the Great Emu War will be on at the Emerging Artists Share House – The Living Room, Erskineville from September 20-24. Book tickets from Sydney Fringe Festival https://sydneyfringe.com/events/the-tale-of-the-great-emu-war/