The Peo­ple Speak gives voice to the ac­tivists who helped shape our na­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

AT the turn of the 19th cen­tury, the schol­arly pub­lisher AG Stephens sug­gested Aus­tralia was a na­tion of crit­ics: Aus­tralians liked to re­duce the idols and ideals of the older world to their com­mon Aus­tralian de­nom­i­na­tor.

This much is clear in The Peo­ple Speak. A spe­cial His­tory Chan­nel event co-writ­ten and hosted by au­thor Thomas Ke­neally and pro­duced and di­rected by Phillip Tan­ner, it cel­e­brates some of our great bat­tles for so­cial jus­tice when many of those Aus­tralian crit­ics shouted out to be heard.

Their voices — con­victs, min­ers, shear­ers, bush-rangers, union­ists, fem­i­nists, anti-war pro­test­ers and in­dige­nous ac­tivists — are reimag­ined by some of our best-known ac­tors. Some­times dra­mat­i­cally, some­times al­most com­i­cally, they show how good we have been at at­tack­ing the cant and hum­bug of the day, mock­ing priv­i­lege and author­ity and fight­ing over our griev­ances.

‘‘ Aus­tralia never had a civil war; we’ve been a civil­i­sa­tion of words; earthy, arch, clever and some­times out­ra­geous words,’’ Ke­neally says at the start of this largely en­ter­tain­ing 11/ 2- hour per­for­mance. The word-fest was filmed be­fore a live au­di­ence at Syd­ney’s his­toric Car­riage works in Red­fern’s Eveleigh rail yards.

And as Stephens, the most in­flu­en­tial, widely read and re­spected lit­er­ary critic of his time, sug­gested of our brand of crit­i­cism, its ro­mance and high pas­sion shines through this his­tor­i­cal pageant in its strong­est mo­ments.

Decked out as an age­ing dis­si­dent in baggy jeans and a hoodie, Ke­neally tells us in his in­tro­duc­tion from the stage that the event is wit­ness to ‘‘ the peo­ple’s his­tory’’: the his­tory of ar­gu­ment, protest and con­flict, one spo­ken by those on the mar­gins of an emerg­ing so­ci­ety and that goes back to our be­gin­nings. ‘‘ Very few so­ci­eties had the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing de­rived from a pur­pose-built, de­signed pe­nal set­tle­ment but we do have that dis­tinc­tion, and we were among the pre-fallen, and we were the pre-writ­ten off,’’ Ke­neally says in one of the best speeches of the night.

He’s the warm-up act to per­for­mances by ac­tors in­clud­ing Jack Thompson, Clau­dia Kar­van, John Jar­ratt, David Wen­ham, Sam Worthington and Re­becca Gib­ney who read, and some­times act out, ac­counts of some of our most sig­nif­i­cant so­cial strug­gles.

A lot of ground is cov­ered, from the cry for con­victs’ rights and the strug­gle for fair pay and work­ing con­di­tions to the bat­tles for the self-de­ter­mi­na­tion of our in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion. The read­ings are in­ter­spersed with mu­si­cal per­for­mances by Tex Perkins, Ju­lia Stone and Chris­tine Anu.

Many of the cho­sen ex­tracts high­light starkly the way de­mands for so­cial jus­tice have been a pat­tern of our so­ci­ety since its be­gin­nings. Alex Dim­i­tri­ades, for in­stance, presents a mem­o­rable seg­ment on Peter Lalor, leader of the 1854 Eureka re­bel­lion in Bal­larat, and Tex Perkins does a grav­elly ver­sion of Waltz­ing Matilda, Banjo Pater­son’s swag-man echo­ing the de­fi­ance of the con­victs and em­body­ing the rad­i­cal re­volt of the na­tive-born bush worker against the squat­ter and the author­ity he com­mands.

What comes through pow­er­fully in the first half of The Peo­ple Speak is that many con­victs and early set­tlers shared nov­el­ist Joseph Fur­phy’s be­lief that the ‘‘ pet­ri­fied in­jus­tice’’ of the old world should have no place in the new. But, as read­ing af­ter read­ing so dra­mat­i­cally il­lus­trates, it would take a long time for a dis­par­aged Aus­tralia to find its own voice.

This cel­e­bra­tion of words is in­spired by a His­tory Chan­nel ac­tivism-themed doc­u­men­tary film with the same ti­tle that went to air in the US in 2009. Ac­tors Josh Brolin and Matt Da­mon were ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, and it was based on source doc­u­ments that rad­i­cal his­to­rian Howard Zinn used for his con­tro­ver­sial text­book A Peo­ple’s His­tory of the United States, pub­lished in 1980.

Seen by more than eight mil­lion peo­ple in the US, The Peo­ple Speak fea­tured Da­mon read­ing John Stein­beck; Bob Dy­lan per­form­ing Woody Guthrie; Marisa Tomei de­scrib­ing the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Michi­gan; Mor­gan Free­man and Don Chea­dle bring­ing to life the words of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass; John Le­gend read­ing Muham­mad Ali; and many oth­ers per­form­ing the work of the ac­claimed and anony­mous in Amer­i­can his­tory.

The fol­low­ing year, ac­tor Colin Firth led a cast of tal­ented names on stage at Lon­don’s Prince of Wales The­atre in the Bri­tish ver­sion of The Peo­ple Speak.

‘‘ I want this to be a re­minder that our free­doms are in our own hands and that they can be lost far more eas­ily than they were won,’’ Firth said at the time. ‘‘ Free­dom has to be vig­i­lantly main­tained. We must never for­get that a lot of peo­ple sac­ri­ficed their lives to win it.’’

I had an­tic­i­pated the Aus­tralian adap­ta­tion of The Peo­ple Speak would bor­row more from what US colum­nist Tom Shales de­scribed as ‘‘ a kind of his­tor­i­cal vaude­ville re­vue’’ ev­i­dent in the Amer­i­can event, with less talk than there is in the lo­cal ver­sion — though much of it is finely done — and more mu­sic. And I thought, es­pe­cially af­ter Ke­neally’s in­tro­duc­tion, that

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