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