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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -



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

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