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Australia Felix

Australia Felix
Writer: Geoffrey Sykes
Director: Geoffrey Sykes
Richard Wherrett Studio
April 5 & 6 (2.30 & 7.30pm)

Australia Felix is an entertaining and thoughtful play. Writer Geoffrey Sykes has chosen the ideal story through which to probe our chequered history and the uncertainty of our future, the cast is very appealing in their various roles and have good voices, and Steve Wood’s songs are both catchy and purposeful.

The narrative is based on the remarkable life of runaway convict, George Clarke aka “The Flying Barber”, arrested for household theft in 1824. Clarke received a death sentence which was commuted to transportation for life. Eventually, after some credible and incredible adventures, 29-year-old Clarke was hanged in 1835 in Hobart and Australia Felix begins as if on the eve of his execution. The story is presented  by “John MacNamara’s  All-Australian Theatre”, a travelling theatre company, on an appropriately simple stage.

We are introduced initially to the five troubadours who play all the characters with whom George engaged in his eventful existence, and whose adventures are narrated in an episodic, stylised way. The whole is held together by Rick Butler’s excellent performance as MacNamara, and whose guitar acts as punctuation to each scene. He engages the audience through eye contact and almost draws them into the narrative physically by his movements towards them and then retreats to the middle stage. 

This same device is used by Kate Stewart as Elizabeth Harris, brought into the narrative to show that some free settlers were happy to farm small and to share their produce with Aboriginal peoples. Dressed in a warm rusty brown she moves down stage into audience space, giving the impression of generosity and trustfulness in a possible future where all tensions could be resolved.

In a direct contrast to Elizabeth’s philosophy, Clarke’s first master Benjamin Singleton (Freya Moore) is tight and controlled. He will forgive Clarke for absconding, living with Aboriginal tribes and cattle rustling while at liberty if Clarke will accompany him on an expedition inland. His “generosity” is motivated by greed for more land, illustrating the settlement’s push for more territory.

George Clarke’s knowledge of the interior is the crux of the story. Clarke as played by Mark Alexander is an ambiguous fellow, at once subservient and resistant, at once rough and reckless but also a visionary. Almost a slave, he would doff his cap to authorities if he had one but is ready to argue with the worldly Major Campbell (Tisha Kelemen) and Sir Thomas Mitchell (Butler), and his depiction of the mighty Kindur River running northwest into the inland to the coast in the far north is both ruse and an imaginative wonder.

When charged with cattle rustling Clarke haltingly (and logically) offers the defence that he was helping the tribes survive as pastoralists were progressively depriving them of their land. Alexander portrays well Clarke’s troubled state of mind when told the colonists feared him as an inciter of a black rebellion against white settlers.

As various figures of great authority Tisha Kelemen is impressively vindictive or superior, whether wearing a much becurled wig or a grey frog coat, and her voice is a great asset in the choral items. The songs, it must be said, are a high point of the production, ranging from rousing numbers to the heart-breaking “Do You Remember”. Appealing also are the clever reminders of well-known ballads such as “Botany Bay” and “The Wild Colonial Boy” nicely worked into the melodies.

In the 19th century fear dictated that injustice and death were meted out to the underprivileged in the disguise of the law. How different are we today when an honest appeal by the most underprivileged for a place in the lawmaking process is crushed by the same fear.

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