Twenty-one years ago, four Australian playwrights and a composer came together to create the landmark stage production Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?. Though written as a direct response to the political mood in the final years of Victoria’s Liberal Kennett government, it was also lauded as a state-of-the-nation play that captured the zeitgeist of Australia in the ’90s.
Coming to Perth Festival this month (after premiering in Melbourne late last year), Anthem reunites that same group of creators – influential writers Patricia Cornelius, Andrew Bovell, Christos Tsiolkas and Melissa Reeves, and composer Irine Vela – to take the pulse of the nation today.
The new play deals with similar themes as its predecessor, but where Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? was about a specific group, Anthem is an intersectional take on class, race and gender.
“The rise of identity politics has happened since the ’90s, and there are a lot of good things to have come from that,” Reeves tells Broadsheet. “But there’s also a danger in only seeing the world through notions of identity, in that it can be incredibly polarising. We are responding to that irony in Anthem.”
The result is a dynamic, interconnected series of vignettes – each written by one of the four writers – “fused together” by the group’s shared writing process and their mutual passion for political theatre that aims for the jugular. It’s a play of different voices, for different voices, that tries to sing in unison – and calls upon audiences to do the same.
These diverse voices are brought together by a great social equaliser, the train carriage – one of the few places where Australians of all stripes mix. So begins an exploration of land ownership, sovereignty and protest, terror and personal safety – things that become more visible aboard the incubators that are public trains, says Reeves.
Reeves’s vignette explores the moment a young former 7-Eleven employee decides to take a pay dispute into his own hands, and brings his ex-girlfriend (who works at Chemist Warehouse) along with him. Hesitant to give too much away, Reeves simply says the pair are “searching for the cause of their misery”, but that ultimately, “they don’t find it”.
“I think it’s getting harder and harder in people’s minds to know what’s causing them grief,” she says. “It used to be quite clear for the left what the issues were with capitalism, and people had theories as to how to overcome them. But more recently, the left has been in disarray and trying to find a way through the current malaise has proven difficult.”
Described by critics as Anthem’s main comic relief, Reeves’s writing draws on accounts of working-class struggle that she found online. She did much of her research on Reddit.
“That was totally fascinating,” she says. “I found people sort of testifying online about what their lives are like in quite an explicit way. It’s awful, but I enjoyed researching it and trying to figure out what exactly is going on for some of these people. Among other things, I wanted my part to simply acknowledge how shithouse some people’s working lives are.”
Recognising strength in diversity, finding courage for deep discussion of the problems we face, and building community around common goals: these are all necessary prerequisites for overcoming the challenges posed (or exposed) by Anthem. And in writing the play, the writers enact the very dynamic they seek to promote – Anthem isn’t just a call to action, it’s an antidote in and of itself.
“We were quite nervous about Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, because we all write in quite different styles and we didn’t want it to look like a patchwork,” says Reeves. “And in some ways, maybe it was, and maybe Anthem is, but … the fact that we’re all different is our strength, it makes the play more dynamic, and allows us to examine things more deeply.”
Reeves says that the answer to the question posed by Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? was “no one at all”. Anthem’s revised conclusion might be that we’re all afraid of everything. It suggests the nation has become so polarised that even our internal selves have become polarised. It asks, what is the way forward? Which voices are ignored? Is there a different anthem that could bind us?
“Parts of Anthem certainly deal with the huge disparateness between different groups,” says Reeves. “The ongoing struggle for recognition, reparation and rights for Aboriginal people, the glaring imbalance of prosperity, the lie that we all share and benefit equally from Australia … But in another way there is also a sort of anthemic call to feel what draws us together, to see possible connection, and to act.”
Anthem is showing at Perth Festival from February 12 to 16. Tickets are available here.