Leah Purcell’s stage adaptation of Henry Lawson’s short story, The Drover’s Wife, is a major new piece of Australian playwriting. Purcell has injected the Indigenous perspective back into a chapter of Australia’s history from which it has largely been white-washed, forcing her audience to reconsider what they thought they knew about Australia in the late 19th century and the work of Australia’s legendary writer and bush poet, Henry Lawson.
In fact, calling it an adaptation might be stretching the definition a bit too far — Purcell has taken some of the iconic images and anecdotes from Lawson’s tale and shaped them into an entirely new narrative. Purcell plays the Drover’s Wife who, in spirit, resembles the indefatigable, tough, and quietly heroic woman of Lawson’s story.
Just like Lawson, Purcell finds an unusual beauty in the harsh landscape and pays tribute to those who tackle its challenges. But writing from the perspective of an Indigenous woman, the experiences which shape this character, and the way she takes charge of her own destiny, are entirely new.
The play begins with the Drover’s Wife, heavily pregnant, encountering a potential threat on her doorstep. Instead of the snake of Lawson’s story, it’s an injured Aboriginal man (Mark Coles Smith) with an iron collar around his neck. His name is Yadaka, but the Drover’s Wife refers to him as simply “Black”.
With her husband nowhere to be seen, it’s the Drover’s Wife’s responsibility to look after her children and see off any outsiders. But with her shotgun in hand, something stops her from chasing this man off her property.
Purcell has embraced the full violence and terror of Lawson’s frontier myth, as well as the violence and terror he never would have committed to words.
It’s not an entirely perfect piece of writing — the first half has moments in which emotive cliches stick out in what is otherwise a fairly bleakly naturalistic style, and although Purcell’s twists and turns manage to surprise and turn this tale on its head, some of the plotting could be neatened up a little to allow the emotional beats to land where they should.
But when it hits its groove, about halfway through, it becomes a powerful and important story about justice, perseverance, culture, and family.
Purcell displays absolutely no fear, digging into some of the darkest corners of Australia’s history. Despite her stated aim to draw on the heightened violence and pitch black humour of Quentin Tarantino and the contemporary American Western, this piece feels entirely fresh, both in terms of content and style.
That means director Leticia Caceres doesn’t have much of a template to go off, but she finds a sense of tension and immediacy (this is no stale history lesson!) balancing the gore and action-packed sequences of the play with all the attached emotional turmoil. Scott Witt’s movement direction goes a long way in realising the action, while the sound design by The Sweats is constantly foreboding.
Purcell never lets her guard down as the Drover’s Wife, displaying a steeliness only broken by the toughest of all possible hardships. It’s a big, bold performance.
Mark Coles Smith evokes an appealing and intriguing sense of danger as Yadaka. The young Will McDonald, who had his 18th birthday on opening night, finds the boyish enthusiasm of the Drover’s Wife’s son Danny, which evolves as he’s faced with the brutal realities of his world.
Benedict Hardie and Tony Cogin are both convincing as a series of men who stumble into the Drover’s Wife’s home, disrupting the peace for which she’s battled.
This might be the most important new Australian play written this year, questioning how we tell and respond to the stories of our nation’s past. It feels utterly contemporary in its concerns and politics.
Not only that, it’s also one of the most absorbing and bracing pieces of drama in Sydney this year. It will knock the wind out of your sails, and you’ll be glad that it did.
Featured image by Brett Boardman