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