National Interest - at Melbourne Arts Centre for the Melbourne Theatre Company until 21 July.
I have to be honest with you; I walked out of this play feeling flat. Which is a great shame because I wanted - no, expected - to walk out feeling emotionally drained and connected in some small way to a piece of our national history.
National Interest tells the story of June Stewart (Julia Blake), the mother of one of the five journalists killed in Balibo in October 1975. Her son, Tony Stewart (James Bell) was the sound recordist for Seven and just 21 years of age. He was killed alongside journalist Greg Shackleton (Stuart Halusz), cameramen Gary Cunningham (Grant Cartwright) and Brian Peters and fellow journalist Malcolm Rennie.
Aidan Fennessy wrote and directed this play, and as Tony's younger cousin in real life, he seems the perfect person to bring it to life - on paper and on stage.
June's story is a play in three parts as the words "Fiction", "Fact" and "Conjecture" appear on the floor of her living room to indicate a change in pace.
I found the fiction section which opens the play the most difficult to connect to. We open the play at the conclusion of a family dinner in memory of June's husband who passed away 12 months ago - there are plates and wine glasses still spread out, the rest of the family has left and June is left hosting her daughter Jane (Michelle Fornasier) for the night.
It is obvious that Jane is there to speak to her mother about several issues - her fading memory and her memories of Tony - but the character of Jane felt so disconnected to the subject matter (we are talking about delicate issues here) that I struggled to believe June and Jane were in fact mother and daughter.
If I can't break through that initial barrier, then how can I be expected to connect to the theme and story? For me it is important that I can believe in the relationship I am being presented with, otherwise it just looks like a two actors with scripts in their hands.
Jane wants June to travel with the family to Jakarta where Tony is buried and to visit the village in Balibo. June is adamant she doesn't want to go. She is making a choice not to go she says, and as she repeatedly points out during the play, there is nothing a coronial inquest or a visit to his grave will help heal when all she wants to know is that Tony missed his mother before he was killed.
I thought the character of Jane would have been more frustrated, more exasperated at her mother's stubbornness to admit weakness and her inability to open up about her thoughts on Tony's death. It had after all been many decades since his death - surely things are more emotional and simmering than the calm and collected demeanor taken on by Jane?
Throughout the play we are introduced to the ghosts of June's mind - her son Tony, Greg and Gary - and her memories of them before Tony left for Balibo all those years ago.
These memories are mixed with scenes of fact, the second section of the play, which feature the most powerful moments of the entire play.
There is a particularly chilling scene where the three men begin reciting news stories about their deaths, at first in whispers, and slowly rising to shouting - the confusion and hopelessness that Blake is able to show in this scene is confronting to say the least, and showed me just how difficult it must be for a loved one to grieve for someone who has died in mysterious circumstances.
We hear excerpts from the inquest made three decades later in 2007 - told by Coroner Dorrelle Pinch (a terrific Polly Low) plus eye witness accounts, Gough Whitlam's evidence, embassy communications and quotes from Foreign Affairs - all helping to build the story and show us the kind of things June and her family have had to deal with since Tony's death in 1975.
The set design by Christina Smith was superb, especially the mesh used instead of plaster between the walls so that you are able to see the three men as they travel around the house like ghosts.
Sound design by Ben Collins was beautiful and complemented every scene while lighting by Trent Suidgeest naturally drew you where you needed to focus.
The last section of the play, conjecture, was ultimately unsatisfying; June decides to go to Balibo with her family but you never really understand why and this is the main problem of the play for me.
We never really learn why June changes her mind. As a generalised elderly person, June's character is spot on - proud, unemotional and stubborn - but if you can't crack the inner 'nut' of who that person is and what motivates them to do what they do, then I can't connect with them or their story.
Whilst most of the scenes detailing the horrors that occurred in Balibo and the aftermath for this family were dramatically strong and very well acted, they were not adequately connected to how they really shaped June.
A lot of the time June is on the couch watching - as are we - the 'ghosts' of her memory re-lived in front of her via the three men; and they are done very, very well.
But they don't connect well enough to June. It isn't enough for me to simply watch June watching them and I came away thinking this was the problem with the writing more than anything.
This play was heavily marketed in Melbourne as a mother's own story.
If I can't connect with the character that is supposed to be anchoring the story and whose eyes I am supposed to be seeing things through, then I walk out of the play feeling flat.
And at the risk of sounding like I am trying to degrade the awful experience of this family and with it a national tragedy - which I am not - that is what happened.
Review appeared at: http://theatrevirgin.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/review-national-interest.html
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