Anthem review
Osamah Sami appears in Anthem. Pic: Pier Carthew

Festivals, Theatre

Anthem review (Melbourne International Arts Festival)

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In 1999 four playwrights and a composer came together to create a work examining the cultural makeup of 1990s Australia. Twenty years on from the critically acclaimed Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela have reunited with Anthem, a blunt examination of Australia’s national identity.

Written for the Melbourne International Arts Festival, it’s a performance unafraid to make audiences sit in their discomfort, confronting them with characters that hit too close to home and scenes uncomfortably familiar: from a seemingly innocent relationship with a sinister power dynamic, to racist slurs thrown across train carriages.

Offering an unsettled snapshot of Melbourne, five individual stories unfold and intertwine on busy trains, with each of the fourteen characters navigating their own experiences of class, race and gender.

Particularly powerful is Patricia Cornelius’ Terror, which tells the story of three women facing increasing economic uncertainty. Arguably the most confronting, car-crash-can’t-look-away scenes arise in this section. In one notable moment a young, poor mother continually uses racist slurs after being issued a public transport fine she can’t afford, while simultaneously experiencing the ritual humiliation of not meeting society’s guidelines for how a mother should look and act.

Particularly powerful is Patricia Cornelius’ Terror, which tells the story of three women facing increasing economic uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Maude Davey’s performance as a middle aged, upper class woman left shattered by the breakdown of a relationship captures the tentative nature of a woman’s standing in society, particularly later in life.

Eva Seymour’s powerful performance as a young, angry and vulnerable Aboriginal woman demanding her land back must also be acknowledged.

Little reprieve is given to audiences throughout Anthem, but the tension is eased through sharp comedic timing from Eryn Jean Norvill in her portrayal of an over-worked Chemist Warehouse employee. She transforms, as the program notes, into an impassioned Bonnie and Clyde wannabe, ready to take down capitalism in Melissa Reeves’ 7-Eleven and Chemist Warehouse, a love story.

The second act of the play feels less fluid than the first, and the strong language begins to feel excessive.

However, it also presents some of the most powerful moments of the play, such as the final confrontation between a maid and her former boss who has fallen from grace. Then there’s the final chorus piece on the train platform, which presents a scathing interpretation of Australia’s inability to respond to human crises, even as its residents yearn for a sense of connection.

Credit goes to Irine Vela for her score Resistance, which seamlessly builds emotion and guides scene transitions but never distracts, as well as director Susie Dee and designer Marg Horwell’s clean set and smooth transitions. Ruci Kaisila’s voice in her rendition of an ironic Waltzing Matilda is magnificent.

If you’re looking for a reassuring moment of Australian unity, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for an honest, raw account of a nation still grappling with its history and uncertain of its future, Anthem is the play for you.

Anthem played Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival October 1-6.

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