Has Clive Palmer had a hand in a new work for the stage?
A love story lies at the core of Sue Smith’s new play exploring interactions between Australia and China since Tiananmen, writes Verity Edwards
THERE’S THIS UNEASE ABOUT CHINA … I DON’T KNOW IF IT’S RACISM, FEAR OR ANXIETY
RACISM, cultural change and a fear of China’s growing power are issues bubbling beneath the surface of everyday Australia. And when exposed they can reveal uncomfortable truths: it’s a point exemplified by Clive Palmer’s recent comments relating to China on the ABC’s Q&A program.
That societal undercurrent, with its long history, is the focus of playwright Sue Smith’s latest work, Kryptonite, being co-produced by the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company. Indeed, at first glance, Smith might have been writing directly about Palmer’s comments, the reaction to them and their impact on the nation’s psyche.
But while the playwright concedes her work deals with similar themes, she is more concerned about a deeper issue.
“What Palmer did during his outburst on Q&A was articulate,” she says. “What I’m on about is this innate fear about China. It goes back historically to the gold rush: we were afraid of China.”
Smith has had China on her mind for many years, she says, and took particular interest in 2009 while undertaking research for Griffin Theatre Company’s Strange Attractor, a play about a cyclone at a mining site in the red dust Pilbara in Western Australia.
“I’d been aware of our relationship when (Chinese mining giant) Chinalco tried to take over Rio Tinto, and it came to (the question of) whether we would be more relaxed about these business dealings if they were coming from, say, the US or from Switzerland,” she says.
“A lot of it comes down to Chinalco being owned by the Chinese state and a lot of that (concern) is legitimate, but I don’t know whether it’s (not also) about racism. It’s ‘ yellow peril’ kind of stuff. It’s White Australia stuff. There’s this unease about China even though there’s a huge number of Chinese people who live here and contribute hugely. I don’t know whether it’s racism, fear or anxiety.”
Smith channels those feelings in Kryptonite through a 25-year relationship between Sydneysider Dylan (Tim Walter) and Chinese student Lian (Ursula Mills) — after they meet as students at the University of Sydney in 1989.
The pair’s relationship is influenced by the Tiananmen Square massacre and how its consequences shape people and culture.
“The story needs to begin there but I want to look at the way people can have galvanising in- fluences on each other, when dreams and ambitions are flexible and unformed,” Smith says.
“I wanted to create a relationship where both of these people have a profound impact on each other in quite a short period. They’re both galvanised into certain journeys by their relationship with each other.”
The play is set a decade after the end of the Cultural Revolution and Lian is among the first wave of Chinese students allowed to study overseas. She is emblematic of “the old China”, an idealist conflicted by what her country’s military is doing to her own people. She and Dylan are friends and lovers.
The pair’s relationship develops as they take different career trajectories. Lian returns to China as a geologist and becomes a mining executive. Dylan joins the Greens and becomes a politician, but he is elected to office after the notorious 2001 Tampa boat incident and finds himself on the far left of a political system leaning heavily to the right.
Kryptonite, says Smith, is about finding a per- son’s vulnerability, their snapping point. The joint production reunites Smith with Geordie Brookman, who took the reins as STCSA artistic director two years ago.
Brookman, who will direct the play, knows the STCSA must take on more joint projects for it to move forward. Those projects in turn create a stronger national profile and attract high-profile actors and more funding.
He is relishing working with Smith again after the pair collaborated on The Kreutzer Sonata for the Adelaide Festival last year.
STCSA and STC have a long-running association, with Brookman’s father Rob, the general manager in South Australia, having also managed the Sydney company in the early days of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s artistic direction. The companies also co-produced John Doyle’s Vere (Faith) last year.
When Geordie Brookman last year discovered Smith was working on the play during a three-month residency at STC, supported by Playwriting Australia, he contacted STC’s liter- ary manager Polly Rowe and a joint production was set in train.
“One of the most delightful things is Sue is a writer and she’ll sit in a rehearsal room and look ecstatic,” Brookman says. “For a writer to look like that and have that degree of enthusiasm and passion is wonderful. She’s perceptive and driven and at the same time flexible and always in pursuit of the best possible.”
The pair speak nightly, and if Brookman wants Smith to watch something from the rehearsals in Adelaide while she is in Sydney, they use Skype.
Smith praises Brookman as “incredibly gifted” and says they understand each other in a “shorthand way”.
Kryptonite is Brookman’s fourth production on the trot, and he is directing Walter and Mills to reflect two political progressives who have a real concern about whether they can stay true to ideologies in their lifetime and whether they will be worn down.
At the work’s heart is a relationship between two people struggling to bridge the gap between two cultures, politics, economics and race.
The current political situation and intrigue surrounding Palmer and his Palmer United Party’s senator Jacqui Lambie gives great context to the production, Brookman says, along with discussions about Australian identity and the direction in which the country is heading.
It also takes in the cultural changes in China, and how the countries have interacted across 25 years.
“At its most basic, it says both cultures have a lot to learn from each other. It encourages the idea of not judging a culture in transition,” he says.
“What I find most exciting and powerful is the direction the play takes about history. It’s impossible for history to be changed, and cultural crime and trauma will always have to be dealt with.”
Brookman says people invariably refer to the trouble China has had discussing the Tiananmen Square massacre 25 years ago, but Australia has also struggled with its past.
“How many years did it take for us to say sorry (to the indigenous population)? We still don’t have a treaty with our indigenous culture,” he says. “Most countries have a way with cultural hypocrisy.”
Kryptonite opens at Sydney Theatre Company on
Director Geordie Brookman, centre, with Ursula Mills and Tim Walter, who play the protagonists; playwright Sue Smith, below