Theatre Review: ‘Wake in Fright’ is an acid trip into our country’s shame

Billed as a one-woman retelling of the famed 1961 novel (and 1971 film), Malthouse theatre’s production of Wake in Fright is an ambitious undertaking – if not initially perplexing. Producing one of Australia’s most classic outback thrillers as a one-cast show is odd enough, but not least of all when you are greeted by a large bear mascot and handed a pair of earplugs while a trap bootleg of Sandstorm plays on repeat.

After a while the bear takes off its head, revealing performer Zahra Newman. Newman calmly talks to the audience with the house lights still up, making quips about the earplugs and her ‘unusual accent’. She tells a story about an Uber driver who said he was from Broken Hill, the same town with a mascot that taught kids in schools to avoid lead poison from the local mines by washing their hands. Slowly things begin to turn, as houselights dim and the story of an English teacher stuck in outback Bundayabba on his way to Sydney begins.

The performance is an amalgam of stellar acting on the part of Newman as well as spectacular lighting and projection and sound design by Verity Hampson and James Paul respectively, alongside a thumping soundtrack and multimedia design by Melbourne act Friendships. Newman morphs vocally into each character and swaggers about the stage in parts, weaving deftly into the spectacular special effects, rather than overpowering or being overcome by them.

John Grant’s descent into insanity at the hands of Australia’s toxic masculinity and addiction to drink is reframed at the hands of a woman of colour, drawing its underlying themes to the fullest conclusion of colonialism, parochialism and decimation of both indigenous culture and the environment. John’s fate is played out somewhat differently to the film and is quite powerful in its analogy.

It’s an acid trip of a show with a committed performance and dizzying production. Not one for the faint but not one to miss