The Weekend Australian - Review

KILLING TIME

Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany re­turns to the stage with a bold new gothic mur­der mys­tery by An­gus Cerini, and star­ring Hugo Weav­ing and Wayne Blair. By Matthew West­wood

- Won­nan­gatta is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Syd­ney, Septem­ber 21 to Oc­to­ber 21. Entertainment · Music · Hugo Weaving · New South Wales · Andrew Farriss · INXS · Australia · Sydney Theatre Company · Goulburn

Two blokes come on stage and to­gether they start telling a yarn. There’s a cat­tle­man’s house in Vic­to­ria’s high coun­try, Won­nan­gatta Sta­tion. Two days’ ride from the near­est big town. The most iso­lated home­stead in Vic­to­ria. De­serted. The men find a note chalked on the door: “Home tonight.” No sign of Jim Bar­clay. Hasn’t been seen for a month. Then Jim Bar­clay’s dog Baron shows up, hun­gry as hell. The dog leads the men to a creek, and to some­thing half-buried in the creek bed that looks like a round, smooth white rock. The men start to dig and make a grisly find.

That’s the set-up from the open­ing pages of Won­nan­gatta, An­gus Cerini’s cracker of a new play. Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany is about to stage the pre­miere in what will be the com­pany’s first re­turn to the stage since the lock­down in March. And this vir­ile, po­etic, plot-driven mur­der mys­tery is al­most the per­fect ve­hi­cle for these edge-of-seat days in which we find our­selves.

The men are played by Hugo Weav­ing and Wayne Blair. Harry (Weav­ing) knows this high, re­mote coun­try. He’s an ex­pe­ri­enced cat­tle­man, was Jim Bar­clay’s mate. Rig­gall (Blair) is a bit un­sure, naive, eas­ily spooked. You might not think it if you met them sit­ting sullen and alone in the pub. But put them to­gether and it turns out they like a chat.

Cerini’s play, or at least the draft seen by this writer, has no stage di­rec­tions or pro­saic de­scrip­tions of the set­ting and date of the ac­tion. There is no drama­tis per­sonae telling the reader, or a di­rec­tor, or the ac­tors, who the char­ac­ters are and what they look like. Ev­ery­thing is in Cerini’s di­a­logue be­tween Harry and Rig­gall. They set the scene. They estab­lish char­ac­ter. They make ac­tion and dra­matic in­ci­dent out of words. They ar­gue, con­jec­ture, philosophi­se, chal­lenge and threaten — and scare each other half wit­less.

It’s a bold piece of dra­matic writ­ing by an Aus­tralian play­wright, in its for­mal qual­i­ties as orig­i­nal as any­thing put on the main stage of a ma­jor theatre com­pany for a long time. The sound of it, in the mind’s ear, is like a verse drama or a play for voices. Weav­ing says it ex­cites the imag­i­na­tion as a ra­dio play does and he men­tions pos­si­bly the great­est ex­am­ple of that genre, Un­der Milk Wood.

“It has a won­der­fully mus­cu­lar, col­lo­quial lan­guage,” he says. “It’s dark, and com­pelling, and funny, but it rings very true. It has a clas­si­cal, mu­si­cal qual­ity to it. The more I work on it, the more I think about it, the more ex­tra­or­di­nary I think An­gus is as a writer … It’s al­ready a clas­sic, in my mind.”

“It’s a very unique beast, this play,” says Blair. “I’ve never read any­thing like it, I’ve never done any­thing like it … It’s not a nat­u­ral­is­tic play. But let­ting the words do all the work, and hav­ing that imag­i­na­tion in your head, in a white-walled re­hearsal room, you’re cre­at­ing the north­ern Vic­to­rian coun­try­side in 1918.”

The play is based on true crime, the un­solved Won­nan­gatta mur­ders. Harry Smith, Weav­ing’s char­ac­ter, was a well­known cat­tle­man in the area who dis­cov­ered the bod­ies.

Cerini heard the story when he was a kid. His fam­ily had an old miner’s cot­tage that they used as a hol­i­day house at Jamieson, where his fa­ther loved fly fish­ing on the Jamieson and Goul­burn rivers. North­east of Mel­bourne, Jamieson is head­ing in the di­rec­tion of Vic­to­ria’s alpine district and the high graz­ing coun­try of Won­nan­gatta.

“I knew about the Won­nan­gatta mur­ders, or had heard of them, when I was very lit­tle,” Cerini says. “It’s the cat­tle­men’s area. Those sort of sto­ries are still spo­ken of. It’s like The Man from Snowy River, part of the his­tory of the place. They’re present, you know?”

Cerini had some suc­cess with his pre­vi­ous play The Bleed­ing Tree. It was first pro­duced on the tiny stage at Syd­ney’s Grif­fin Theatre and later trans­ferred to Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany. It won him a Help­mann Award and the David Wil­liamson Prize for ex­cel­lence in writ­ing for Aus­tralian theatre at the AWGIE awards. The Wil­liamson prize, worth $60,000, in­cluded $20,000 for Cerini to get started on a new play, and $35,000 for the theatre com­pany that agreed to pro­duce it.

Cerini started think­ing about the sub­ject for his new play. He lives on a block in the Strath­bo­gie Ranges, coun­try as­so­ci­ated with the Kelly Gang. But as he thought about that story and its over­worked tropes in books and films, his mind turned to Won­nan­gatta and the tales he heard on fam­ily hol­i­days. He talked about it with his dad, who was un­der­go­ing can­cer treat­ment. He

got hold of a his­tory of the re­gion, Harry Stephenson’s Cat­tle­men and Huts of the High Plains, which re­lates the story of the mur­ders.

“Al­most ev­ery­thing in this play, if you threw a ran­dom bit at me, it’s al­most cer­tainly go­ing to be true,” Cerini says.

“The his­toric record, that’s what’s freaky. They did dig the body out, it was wrapped in a red blan­ket, it was writ­ten in chalk ‘Home tonight’. It’s bizarre, right?”

Even the ex­otic names of lo­ca­tions in the play are real — Bas­tard’s Neck, Mount Bug­gery, Ter­ri­ble Hol­low. “It’s all there,” Cerini says. “It’s sort of wild.”

Here’s a sam­ple of the po­etic di­a­logue that Cerini puts in the mouths of Harry and Rig­gall. They are rid­ing up to Howitt’s Hut where they hope to find Bam­ford, a nasty piece of work in Harry’s view and a sus­pect in Bar­clay’s mur­der.

On their horses they climb into the high coun­try, notic­ing how the air starts to taste dif­fer­ent as they come into a grove of moun­tain ash: “Tall and straight / strips of skin fall­ing away in great scrolls un­furl­ing / Smooth white trunks sail­ing up and up / Sway­ing gen­tle and strong.” Much of the di­a­logue is con­structed like this: po­etic and mu­si­cal, al­most a duet for voices.

Cerini says he thinks about di­a­logue in terms of mu­sic and even dance. He men­tions Prokofiev’s score for Peter and the Wolf, in which char­ac­ters in the story are as­signed dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments in the orches­tra, giv­ing each in­di­vid­ual a voice. And the play­wright who stud­ied bal­let for 10 years thinks of di­a­logue not as words im­mo­bile on a page but of how they will be en­livened and em­bod­ied.

“I’ve been try­ing to cre­ate lan­guage that is spe­cific to theatre, and words that are a kind of ver­bal dance,” he says.

“It’s not just about what they’re say­ing but how they’re say­ing it, the sound of the words and not nec­es­sar­ily what it means. Words can be so plea­sur­able in them­selves, so I’m try­ing to cre­ate a rhythm and words that sound good in the body, so that our bod­ies are en­gaged, and the story is dra­mat­i­cally strong.”

He wrote the first third of the play in an in­tense burst.

When he learned that Weav­ing and Blair had been cast as Harry and Rig­gall, he was able to imag­ine how these ac­tors would carry the play on the stage, his words in their mouths. For the ac­tors, learn­ing the di­a­logue has been a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge. Blair says he starts go­ing through his lines in the shower, on the drive to re­hearsals, with Weav­ing when they meet for cof­fee. “Ev­ery day your brain is fried be­cause you’re try­ing to re­mem­ber so many lines,” he says. “You just have to trust the words and let the words do the work … You could do it sit­ting around a fire, it’s a re­ally great yarn.” Won­nan­gatta feels like a play for the times, with the on­go­ing lock­downs, health re­stric­tions and per­va­sive weird­ness. Cerini is un­likely to be at the pre­miere at Syd­ney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre be­cause he’s on the wrong side of the closed NSW-Vic­to­rian bor­der.

So­cial dis­tanc­ing will keep the au­di­ence at each per­for­mance to just 152 peo­ple, in a theatre that usu­ally seats 800. (Blair says it will be like play­ing to a haunted house.)

But hav­ing a cast of two, a min­i­mal­ist pro­duc­tion di­rected by Jessica Arthur and a run­ning time of 90 min­utes with­out in­ter­val means Won­nan­gatta is a vi­able en­ter­prise when a large-scale theatre epic with a large en­sem­ble of ac­tors prob­a­bly would be out of the ques­tion.

With­out spoil­ing, Cerini’s Won­nan­gatta goes to a strange place that could be weirdly comic, ex­is­ten­tially bleak or both. Weav­ing prefers to leave it an open ques­tion, but he gives a flavour of the sit­u­a­tion in which Harry and Rig­gall find them­selves.

“It feels like they’re giv­ing over to the idea of time,” he says. “Time will call us all home; time will bring us all to rest. And there’s noth­ing we can do about it. We’re all bay­ing in the wind. Lonely, but we need each other.”

‘You just have to trust the words and let the words do the work … You could do it sit­ting around a fire, it’s a re­ally great yarn’

Wayne Blair

Sit­ting at a long ta­ble af­ter a mid­day meal over a me­an­der­ing con­ver­sa­tion that touches on rain­fall, agri­cul­ture, glob­al­i­sa­tion and Fen­der Pre­ci­sion bass gui­tars, An­drew Far­riss says: “I love Pre­ci­sion basses, and all of those sorts of lux­ury things that peo­ple aspire to — but some of the most lux­u­ri­ous things I can think of are sit­ting at the end of the ta­ble, right there.” He points at a bowl filled with fresh fruit, then be­gins telling the story of when his band INXS vis­ited Cze­choslo­vakia in 1987. It was still un­der com­mu­nist rule at the time, and the Syd­ney rock act was there to film sev­eral mu­sic videos for sin­gles from their mul­ti­mil­lion sell­ing al­bum Kick, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of its most en­dur­ing songs in Never Tear Us Apart and New Sen­sa­tion.

Feel­ing clogged up from bad food and in need of some proper sus­te­nance, Far­riss asked the ho­tel concierge where he could get some fresh fruit, only to be met with a sur­pris­ing re­sponse: “That’s only on a Tues­day.”

When the given day ar­rived, Far­riss — then 28 years old — du­ti­fully walked to the ap­pointed lo­ca­tion, only to be met with a line of about 400 peo­ple who all had the same idea as the vis­it­ing mu­si­cian: the de­sire to munch on an ap­ple or, if they were es­pe­cially lucky that day, per­haps a ba­nana or an or­ange.

For some­one who had grown up in Aus­tralia, land of plenty, it was a real eye-opener to be spend­ing time in a place where you couldn’t get what you wanted when­ever you wanted it. But de­spite the global suc­cess and at­ten­tion that INXS had even­tu­ally earned af­ter form­ing in Syd­ney a decade prior, that ex­pe­ri­ence in 1987 re­minded Far­riss of his early days as a work­ing mu­si­cian in the NSW cap­i­tal. With a smirk, he says that he got into song­writ­ing for two rea­sons: be­cause it was some­thing he re­ally wanted to do, and be­cause he was starv­ing.

“When I left Perth with my younger brother Jon, we drove a ’66 Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle across the Nullar­bor and came to Syd­ney,” he says. “I didn’t have any money, so I had to work out how I was go­ing to feed my­self, and then I be­gan to re­alise that the harder you work, the more food you might eat.”

Judg­ing by the tasty-look­ing rain­bow of colour sat in a bowl at the end of the ta­ble — not to men­tion the beau­ti­ful home set on a 1500ha prop­erty near the north­east NSW town of Barraba — Far­riss has worked rea­son­ably hard since that re­al­i­sa­tion set in.

All this, though, is not the sort of con­ver­sa­tional fare one typ­i­cally en­coun­ters when speak­ing with glob­ally fa­mous mu­si­cians, but Far­riss has a unique world­view that’s been in­formed by his de­ci­sion to not only move to this re­mote part of the coun­try, but to run about 430 beef cat­tle on a prop­erty he and his wife Mar­lina man­age with as­sis­tance from their neigh­bours.

It is Oc­to­ber 2018 when Re­view vis­its the singer-song­writer at the home he has owned since 1992, and the rolling hills that sur­round his house are painfully dry, given that the en­tire state has been suf­fer­ing through a drought for years on end.

Set to per­form at an up­com­ing drought fundraiser con­cert in Tam­worth named Hay Mate along­side the likes of John Farn­ham and Guy Se­bas­tian, Far­riss is un­der­stand­ably a lit­tle ner­vous, as the show — also to be broad­cast live on the Nine Net­work — will see him per­form sev­eral INXS hits with Jon Stevens on lead vo­cals.

“I must ad­mit when I first bought this place, I did freak out a lit­tle bit,” he says. “I thought I’d seen a cou­ple of bad droughts, but the one that lit­er­ally only just turned a week ago was get­ting pretty scary. If it stops rain­ing now, and if rain doesn’t keep on com­ing, ev­ery­one’s dams are right down low, and it’s go­ing to be even worse than it al­ready was. I’m right in the mid­dle of that; I’m liv­ing it. So when you ask me why I’m do­ing a con­cert, and why I care? There’s your rea­son.”

As well, the Hay Mate gig will see Far­riss step up to the mi­cro­phone for a cou­ple of tracks, in­clud­ing the band’s 1982 sin­gle Don’t Change — he has printed and taped the lyrics to its two verses to the top edge of his acous­tic gui­tar, just in case he needs the prompt — and an un­re­leased song named Tears in the Rain, which will give a na­tional au­di­ence its first taste of Far­riss per­form­ing in coun­try mu­sic mode.

Later in the af­ter­noon, as he steers a four-wheel drive to­wards the high­est part of his prop­erty for a photo shoot fol­lowed by a su­perb sun­set ac­com­pa­nied by cold Coronas and corn chips, Far­riss says: “I’m just try­ing to dis­tance my­self a bit from the INXS guys. Ev­ery­one loves the fact that they know that I’ve writ­ten [those songs], and I’m lucky to have that as­so­ci­a­tion. I wouldn’t be able to do this with you if I hadn’t done that; but at the same time, I want to do my own mu­sic, and be me, who­ever that is. It’s ei­ther go­ing to work, or it isn’t.”

It’s been more than a year since that first meet­ing at his home, and at the 2020 Tam­worth Coun­try Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, Far­riss has well

and truly found the artis­tic voice and the pre­sen­ta­tion that will de­fine this next phase of his ca­reer, as he pre­pares to re­lease his de­but al­bum un­der his own name.

At the time he meets Re­view in Jan­uary, he has re­leased two sin­gles in Come Mid­night and Good Momma Bad, and the al­bum is sched­uled for re­lease in May. At a glance his vibe is cow­boy through and through, all the way to the waist­coat, the leather boots and the three dif­fer­ently sized hats he brings to this ho­tel bar in­ter­view and sets on the seat be­side him.

For Far­riss, the look is a mix be­tween the prac­ti­cal re­al­i­ties of liv­ing on the land — one of these hard-shelled hats pro­tected his skull from ma­jor dam­age when he re­cently fell from a horse on his prop­erty — and the more fash­ion-con­scious as­pects of the busi­ness he’s re-en­ter­ing.

“The waist­coat is im­por­tant for me be­cause it stops me eat­ing too many ham­burg­ers,” he says with a laugh. “It’s my re­al­ity check: if I can’t fit into this, I’m in trou­ble. And be­ing over 60 now, I need to start to watch all that stuff, and it’s the same with keep­ing the sun off my head as I’m age­ing. But one thing I didn’t see com­ing with it all is that in a weird way it’s help­ing me feel more youth­ful, do­ing what I’m do­ing. I need to re­main en­er­getic. I’ve got to stay ac­tive, and keep mov­ing.”

Although it might ap­pear to INXS fans that he has made a rather dras­tic stylis­tic shift into coun­try mu­sic since the rock band played its fi­nal show in 2012, hav­ing pressed on with sev­eral singers af­ter Michael Hutchence died by sui­cide in 1997, for Far­riss it has been a grad­ual process that be­gan with reg­u­lar trips to Nashville, where he be­gan col­lab­o­rat­ing with other song­writ­ers and mu­si­cians.

In time, he found him­self so drawn to the genre and its strong sense of sto­ry­telling that he de­cided to give it a crack him­self. But rather than chas­ing trends in mod­ern coun­try song­writ­ing, he has taken more of a tra­di­tional and his­tor­i­cally re­spect­ful ap­proach that was so­lid­i­fied by sev­eral horse­back trips he and Mar­lina took down near the bor­der of Mex­ico, New Mex­ico and Ari­zona, where they learned about Amer­i­can fron­tier cul­ture in a way that also tied to his un­der­stand­ing of life on the land in his home coun­try.

Each sum­mer for nearly five decades, Tam­worth has been the place where Aus­tralian coun­try mu­si­cians have so­cialised, shown off their new­est songs and per­haps col­lected a few Golden Gui­tar Awards if the last year had been a par­tic­u­larly pro­duc­tive one. Although he lives in roughly the same area — Barraba is 92km north of Tam­worth — this marks the first time that Far­riss is vis­it­ing the re­gional city not just as a coun­try mu­sic fan but as an emerg­ing artist, or per­haps more ac­cu­rately, a re-emerg­ing artist.

While per­form­ing here ear­lier this week, he felt a rev­e­la­tory mo­ment that con­tin­ues to echo in his mind’s eye. Re­mem­ber, this is the guy whose song­writ­ing nous helped send INXS around the world and play its mu­sic to mas­sive crowds such as the un­for­get­table Wem­b­ley Sta­dium gig of 1991 be­fore 74,000 fans, which was cap­tured in the con­cert film Live Baby Live.

Hav­ing trod the boards at the very big­gest stages a pop mu­si­cian can hope to achieve, though, Far­riss says he now holds no such fan­tasies of re­turn­ing there. In­stead, he’s able to find joy in play­ing places that are en­tirely de­void of glitz and glamour, such as the Tam­worth Cen­tre­point shop­ping cen­tre, where he re­cently played on a tiny stage set up out­side a JB Hi-Fi store. Ac­com­pa­nied by a gui­tarist, a key­boardist and a cou­ple of back-up singers, Far­riss’s low-key acous­tic set had the guys who run the food court ke­bab shop jump­ing for joy.

“That would have been some­thing I would have done about 1978, when I was with the Far­riss Broth­ers, be­fore we called our­selves INXS,” he says. “I was lov­ing it, be­cause it’s very grass­roots; there’s no airs and graces. Peo­ple shop­ping lo­cally just see me stand­ing there, singing and play­ing, and I thought, ‘That’s go­ing right back to where I started, and right back to where I want to be.’”

“There’s nowhere to hide: you’re on stage, there’s no lights, there’s no fancy gear,” he says with a smile. “It’s all real, and as long as I keep that idea as I’m go­ing through this whole thing — keep it about my mu­sic, about my songs — hope­fully I’ll be OK.

“I’m re­dis­cov­er­ing my roots with it all: not just in the coun­try mu­sic genre, but as a per­son. I’m learn­ing about my­self a lit­tle bit, and if I’m un­com­fort­able with [play­ing a shop­ping cen­tre gig], why would I be? I should be able to do that. I did it orig­i­nally. I think it’s healthy, psy­cho­log­i­cally; it’s like a full cir­cle.”

When Re­view con­nects with Far­riss again in late Au­gust, it’s eight months since our last meet­ing in Tam­worth, and a fair bit has changed in the world, in­clud­ing the in­tended re­lease date for his al­bum. It has been pushed back al­most an en­tire year in BMG’s sched­ule be­cause of COVID-19 af­fect­ing the record la­bel’s abil­ity to prop­erly mar­ket and pro­mote its artists, a de­ci­sion about which the man him­self seems sur­pris­ingly serene as he sits in his ve­hi­cle near the mid­dle of Barraba so as to en­sure a stronger sig­nal for our video call than he’d find at his prop­erty out­side of town.

“I’ve be­come fairly philo­soph­i­cal about it,” he says. “I was re­ally dis­ap­pointed, and I was hav­ing trou­ble pro­cess­ing the re­al­ity that I’d gone to all that trou­ble to write and record all this mu­sic and then try to present it to peo­ple, and then have that pause but­ton put on it. But af­ter a while, it dawned on me that, for what­ever rea­son, it was hap­pen­ing for a rea­son.”

As a stop­gap mea­sure, BMG and Far­riss have de­cided to flip the script on their in­tended mu­si­cal roll­out, and an EP that was meant to fol­low the al­bum will in­stead ar­rive be­fore the full-length. Named All the Stars Are Mine, these five songs were recorded around the same time as his de­but al­bum but didn’t quite fit with the col­lec­tion.

His wife is sit­ting in the driver’s seat be­side him, both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, for she is not just his life part­ner but his project di­rec­tor on all as­pects of Far­riss’s still nascent solo ca­reer. What do you reckon, Mar­lina: is your man telling porkies about how he’s re­ally been feel­ing in re­cent months, or is he giv­ing it to us straight?

“I think he’s dealt with it very well,” she replies. “At the be­gin­ning of COVID, we all sort of freaked out a bit. But you re­group and you think of dif­fer­ent ways to ap­proach prob­lems, and I think when we came up with the idea of the EP, that was the spark of, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s keep go­ing.’ But An­drew is pretty good at ac­cept­ing things you can’t change, and try­ing to look for so­lu­tions.”

The fi­nal track on the EP is named First Man on Earth, and it is cer­tainly the out­lier of the col­lec­tion. Built on lay­ered syn­the­siser sounds and pro­grammed drums, it is far re­moved from the more tra­di­tional coun­try strum­mers that pre­cede it. Fea­tur­ing lyrics in­spired by the life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of be­com­ing a fa­ther for the first time, its ori­gins lie in a song­writ­ing ses­sion in Lon­don about 15 years ago.

At eight min­utes, First Man on Earth is cer­tainly not your av­er­age pop song, coun­try-spiced or oth­er­wise. An in­stru­men­tal mid­sec­tion sees Far­riss spi­ral off into an ex­tended elec­tric gui­tar solo, while the man him­self jokes that its sky-gaz­ing nature has led to a slight shift in his sense of self.

“With my band guys, I’ve been re­hears­ing a bit and get­ting ready for when, please dear God, the gates open again, and we can play live,” he says. “But I’ve been hav­ing a good time work­ing out what songs I want to do next, in­clud­ing these songs. So I’m now think­ing of my­self on the EP as the ‘space cow­boy’: I’m go­ing to outer space for a minute, but I’m com­ing back down to earth.”

If that sounds a lit­tle strange, it’s prob­a­bly no more un­usual than the song­writer be­hind one of the big­gest bands in Aus­tralian mu­sic his­tory rein­vent­ing him­self as a coun­try mu­si­cian at 61. And while First Man on Earth might be one of the strangest songs he’s yet put his name to in more than four decades of mak­ing mu­sic, his song­writ­ing smarts are such that it’d work on a stage set near a food court ke­bab shop in­side a Tam­worth shop­ping cen­tre just as well as it would at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium.

An­drew Far­riss

 ??  ?? Play­wright An­gus Cerini
Play­wright An­gus Cerini
 ??  ?? An­drew Far­riss on his prop­erty near Barraba in 2018; op­po­site page, Far­riss in Syd­ney this year
An­drew Far­riss on his prop­erty near Barraba in 2018; op­po­site page, Far­riss in Syd­ney this year

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