Han­nie Rayson’s new play tack­les en­vi­ron­men­tal change and species ex­tinc­tion. It’s tricky ter­rain, as she tells Vic­to­ria Lau­rie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Theatre -

Han­nie Rayson’s first glimpse of a tiger quoll was of a pretty, cat-sized mar­su­pial with white spots all over its cho­co­late-brown fur. Her quoll was not stalk­ing through the bush, as the species once did across most of the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent. It was a cap­tive an­i­mal that had been flown from Queens­land to form a new breed­ing colony in Vic­to­ria, where only the odd sight­ing — a lone quoll scam­per­ing across a road — hints at their scarcity in the bush.

“I’m a very ur­ban per­son and I didn’t re­ally didn’t know any­thing about them un­til I went down to Parks Vic­to­ria’s Con­ser­va­tion Ecol­ogy Cen­tre at Cape Ot­way,” the play­wright says. “It’s one of the few na­tive mam­mals that in my life­time might go out of ex­is­tence.”

Rayson’s most re­cent glimpse of a quoll was pro­vided by the props depart­ment of Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Com­pany, which emailed her the im­age of a pup­pet replica for her new play, Ex­tinc­tion, which re­volves around the fate of this en­dan­gered mam­mal.

“It looks re­mark­ably like a real tiger quoll,” she says with de­light. “I was so ex­cited, like a child. When it comes on stage it’ll be in some­one’s arms, wrapped in a towel and cov­ered in blood.”

Cue sound­track: the squeal of car brakes, fol­lowed by a loud thud. And then a slow fade to si­lence for yet another species among Aus­tralia’s many na­tive mam­mals head­ing to­wards ex­tinc­tion.

In Rayson’s play, a coalmin­ing ex­ec­u­tive hits a quoll on the road at night, and then puts money on the ta­ble for a big bio­di­ver­sity res­cue pro­ject.

A four-han­der, the play will have its pre­miere later this month in a Black Swan pro­duc­tion in Perth — where the chu­ditch, a west coast quoll species, also faces the threat of ex­tinc­tion.

“It’s shock­ing that quolls are an apex preda­tor, the largest car­niv­o­rous mar­su­pial on the main­land, and rel­a­tives of the Tas­ma­nian devil, and yet are on the ex­tinc­tion threat list,” Rayson says.

She con­cedes that a play billed as “a timely and im­por­tant mes­sage of en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness and con­ser­va­tion” is likely to in­vite mixed re­sponses.

But ad­verse re­ac­tion to polem­i­cal themes in her plays is some­thing Rayson is pre­pared to wear. She copped public and pri­vate abuse over her 2005 play Two Broth­ers, in which sib­lings with markedly dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal be­liefs fall out over op­pos­ing views on boat­peo­ple and the threat of Is­lamic ex­trem­ism. Some saw the char­ac­ters as be­ing based on the Costello broth­ers Peter and Tim.

“I’m proud, even though the crit­i­cism of me and the play was in­tense,” she says. “It’s on the literature syl­labus, and when schoolkids are think­ing about asy­lum is­sues, I feel, well, those politi­cians [ from the era] have come and gone but the play’s still there and be­ing per­formed. And the is­sue hasn’t gone away.”

But Rayson in­sists Ex­tinc­tion is not in­tended to shame us all into sign­ing up with Green­peace or some save-the-quoll al­liance. “In fact, I think some of my re­luc­tance to write about en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues was that I could not see how to present them in ways that weren’t di­dac­tic.

“The kind of theatre I loathe is what I call cor­ri­dor theatre,” she adds. “It’s where you en­ter the space and see a long cor­ri­dor at the end of which is a sign say­ing ‘We must stop min­ing coal and switch to re­new­ables’.

“Two-and-a-half hours later, the ex­pe­ri­ence of the theatre piece has been walk­ing down that cor­ri­dor to­wards the sign that you saw at the be­gin­ning. I am not in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing theatre like that.”

In­stead, she sat in a con­fer­ence about en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity, “where half the room were artists and half were sci­en­tists”. As­sisted by a grant from the New York-based Al­fred P. Sloan Foun­da­tion, which pro­motes re­search and ed­u­ca­tion in science, she read widely and ul­ti­mately sought out her own en­counter with a tiger quoll. She learned that de­tec­tion dogs have been trained to search out tiger quoll scats in the Ot­way Ranges, which are con­firmed through DNA anal­y­sis.

“I started to feel more in tune with the com­plex­ity of ideas. I wanted ev­ery­one to feel im­pli­cated in the ques­tion of species on the edge of death, rather than lin­ing up an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist with a cli­mate change de­nier. I find that kind of dis­cus­sion use­less and bor­ing. And my ab­so­lute in­ter­est in theatre is about it be­ing in­volved in the public con­ver­sa­tion.”

That in­volve­ment has earned Rayson two Aus­tralian Writ­ers Guild awards, four Help­mann Awards, two NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and a Vic­to­rian Premier’s Literary Award. She made play­writ­ing history when Life Af­ter Ge­orge, which pre­miered in 2000, be­came the first play to be nom­i­nated for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

But even a sea­soned writer can swerve dan­ger­ously to­wards di­a­tribe, so how does she nav­i­gate that dan­ger?

“The sim­ple guide is to keep your eye on try­ing to make sense of all points of view,” she says. “The first thing I wanted to do was cre­ate a char­ac­ter who was pre­sent­ing the dirt­i­est of op­tions, namely coal, some­one who could wield a charm of­fen­sive. Once I could ar­gue pas­sion­ately from his point of view, the other ar­gu­ments and con­tra­dic­tions opened up to me.”

“Harry Jewel [played by Matt Dyk­tyn­ski] is a guy who’s in­volved in a re­spectable job, and now the world’s turned and he’s viewed as a car­bon crim­i­nal. He’s drawn to the sheer scale of min­ing, the fact that it’s big and sim­ple.

“What he de­spises about en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists is their ‘ no dams, no roads, no mines’ stance — he’s built roads and rail­ways. But as some­one who’s come from a dairy farm, he has a lot of at­tach­ment to the land it­self — and to the prom­ise of ‘clean’ coal.”

The other male char­ac­ter is fac­ing a dooms­day sce­nario as bleak as the quoll’s. Vet­eri­nar­ian and con­ser­va­tion­ist Andy Dixon (played by Myles Pol­lard, a fa­mil­iar TV face from Home and Away, Un­der­belly and Packed to the Rafters) has re­cently been di­ag­nosed with a rare ill­ness; his fight for sur­vival is not known to his zo­ol­o­gist girl­friend Piper (Han­nah Day).

Mean­while, Jewel slaps $2 mil­lion in coalmin­ing money on the ta­ble to help Dixon’s bi­ol­o­gist sis­ter Heather Dixon-Brown (Sarah McNeill) save the quoll.

Species ex­tinc­tion has al­ways been part of na­ture’s vi­o­lent cli­matic and ge­o­log­i­cal up­heavals, I sug­gest to Rayson. And what about the ar­gu­ment that species sac­ri­fice may be nec­es­sary in the present An­thro­pocene age to save valu­able con­ser­va­tion funds for key an­i­mals?

“That line of think­ing is rep­re­sented in the play by Heather, a woman in her mid-50s who has de­vel­oped an in­dex about ef­fi­ca­ciously dis­tribut­ing the con­ser­va­tion dol­lar,” says Rayson. “I dis­cov­ered there ac­tu­ally is an in­dex, an al­go­rithm, which you can use to de­cide be­tween one cat­e­gory on the doomed list and oth­ers.”

Rayson says the un­der­ly­ing theme in Ex­tinc­tion is the ques­tion: in the age of global warm­ing, how are we to live? That many Aus­tralians are ig­no­rant even of which species are at risk — epit­o­mised by the lit­tle-known tiger quoll — “is not sur­pris­ing given so many of us are ur­ban dwellers”.

“But I think peo­ple are wak­ing up,” she adds, “and the broil­ing re­sent­ment of the baby boomer gen­er­a­tion is that ‘ you are leav­ing things in this state for us to clean up’. That’s what I’m pick­ing up lately.”

She speaks with a con­fi­dence buoyed by re­cent en­coun­ters with hun­dreds of fans dur­ing a book tour for her memoir Hello, Beau­ti­ful!: Scenes from a Life.

At 58, she had de­cided she was grown up and con­fi­dent enough to write about “tak­ing stock” of her life. “I didn’t want it to be a grand nar­ra­tive about my achieve­ments at all. I’ve hardly writ­ten about the theatre, but in­stead funny mo­ments I thought peo­ple would en­joy about fam­ily, ex­pe­ri­ences and travel. I hope peo­ple read­ing it will think, ‘That hap­pened to me, I know what it’s like’.”

Con­ver­sa­tions with strangers led her to con­clude that “many peo­ple don’t ac­tu­ally value the things the gov­ern­ment is telling them we should value, like ex­treme wealth cre­ation. They want to be able to lead ex­am­ined lives, to cre­ate fam­i­lies, to have good jobs, to care about the en­vi­ron­ment and leave a small foot­print”.

Rayson ad­mits to be­ing “at­tracted to peo­ple com­mit­ted to lost causes”. Some observers might sug­gest she is one of them, an ar­dent — per­haps de­luded — be­liever in the power of writ­ing and per­for­mance to in­form and in­flu­ence con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian life.

Not long ago, Steven Sond­heim com­mented on the de­cline of such power on the world stage. “In the 1920s, theatre had an ef­fect on public think­ing,” he said. “I think to­day by the time a show gets on [stage] the idea has passed.

“Theatre is now a cot­tage in­dus­try and a cot­tage en­ter­tain­ment — it doesn’t have much in­flu­ence.”

Rayson is seem­ingly de­ter­mined to fight this de­cline of in­flu­ence. And in the case of Ex­tinc­tion the play­wright may be for­given a de­gree of par­ti­san­ship that sneaks in be­tween her striv­ing for ‘‘mea­sured com­plex­ity’’.

For in the end, I put it to Rayson, she has writ­ten a heart-on-the-sleeve plea for the sur­vival of the hum­ble lit­tle quoll.

“Oh yes,” she ad­mits, laugh­ing. “But I hope there’s a lit­tle magic in the end­ing.”

Ex­tinc­tion is at Black Swan State Theatre Com­pany from Septem­ber 23 to Oc­to­ber 4. Pre­views from Septem­ber 19.

Di­rec­tor Stu­art Halusz, cen­tre, with cast, from left, Myles Pol­lard, Han­nah Day, Matt Dyk­tyn­ski, Sarah McNeill; Han­nie Rayson, be­low

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