The Weekend Australian - Review
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
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’
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.