‘National Interest’ a poignant tale of a mother’s love, was written by 45 years-old, actor and playwright, Aidan Fennessy. This Black Swan State Theatre Company World Premiere is a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company. Fennessy studied language, literature and drama at Victoria College and was a co-founder of Melbourne’s Chameleon Theatre. His very varied 55 screen acting appearances include ‘Neighbours’, ‘Lano and Woodley’, ‘Blue Heelers’ and ‘City Homicide’.
His awards are numerous, and include his 1997 play ‘Chilling and Killing My Annabel Lee’ that won the Wal Cherry Award and was short-listed for the Premier’s Literary Awards. Next he was co-winner of the 2002 Melbourne International Comedy Festival award and then - from 130 entrants - he won the 2010 Griffin Award for Best Play. A film he directed, ‘Mr Wasinski’s Song’, won Best Australian Short Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
This deeply moving play can be seen at the Heath Ledger Theatre in the State Theatre Centre of WA, on the corner of Roe Street and William Street, Northbridge nightly at 7.30 pm until the 19th May. There are also Saturday matinees at 2.15 pm and one Sunday matinee on the 20th May at 5.00 pm. The play’s duration is 90 minutes, with no interval.
The Portuguese fortress town of Balibo is perched upon a hill in Portuguese Timor, now East Timor. On 16th October 1975 tension was building as the Indonesian troops were preparing to invade the area. A group of reporters and camera teams for Sydney’s Channel Seven and Nine Networks were there to record the news. As journalists, they expected to be exempt from being ‘military suspects’, however, unknown to the news crew, the Australian and US Governments secretly supported President Suharto in his attack on the Portuguese territory.
The two Aussie reporters were Tony Stewart, Greg Shackleton (29) and their Kiwi colleague Gary Cunningham (27); the other two were Brits, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie. The five were murdered in cold blood, although the official Indonesian version is that the men were killed by cross-fire during the battle for the town. The only Government phone call to Tony’s mother came from the embassy in Jakarta asking 'where should we send the bill for the coffin?'
A 1999 government enquiry into the deaths of the Balibo Five conducted by the former chairman of the National Crime Authority was inconclusive of murder. Allegations were made that the dead bodies were then dressed in military uniforms and posed with weapons, to make them appear to be soldiers.
Across the set walls is projected the word ‘Fictional’.
It is an evening in 2007; the guests have just left after a dinner marking the first anniversary of the death of June Stewart’s (Julia Blake) husband of 56 years. June is just about clear away the dinner dishes, when she glances over at the empty armchair across the room and pauses.
Having waved the guests off, June’s daughter Jane (Michelle Fornasier) comes back into the sitting room. Straight away June can tell by the look on Jane’s face that she has something important to say. They sit down and Jane suggests that ‘it is the general opinion’ that her mother is perhaps getting a little forgetful and needs ‘care’. As the conversation progresses, the ghost of June’s son, Tony (James Bell), who was killed in Balibo a few weeks after his 21st birthday, enters the room. He can only be seen by his mother. Jane continues, trying hard to convince her mother of the benefits of being ‘looked after’. June, who is a very bright, stubborn and independent woman, has a wicked sense of humour and is determined to stay.
When daughter Jane goes for a shower, Tony’s ghostly camera crew friends drift into the room. They are Gary (Grant Cartwright) and Greg (Stuart Halusz) who are about to set off for the airport and have come to collect Tony. As June sits chatting to the ghosts, the happenings of the past 32 years are acted out in front of the mother in her sitting room. These happenings are nothing new to June; the mother has re-examined and re-lived every fragment of information for the past three decades. Along with the other four families, she has been fighting for justice and an admission that Tony wasn’t killed in crossfire. The numerous court cases are enacted in a fast moving melange of government information, international reports, court cases, and speeches by attorney Dorelle Pinch (Polly Low), followed by the last hours of the five journalists.
June’s pain is still real, her anger at the cover-up and misinformation still eats away, but she has come to live with this hopeless situation. When daughter Jane suggests a pilgrimage to Balibo whilst the next enquiry is being held, June tells her daughter that she is too tired and doesn’t want to go.
Can justice and closure ever come to the families?
In 1992, Tony’s brother, musician Paul Stewart, formed the Dili All-stars with East Timorese musician Gil Santos to sing protest songs. He now has a charity that donates musical instruments to East Timor.
Being the writer, director and dramaturg, Aidan Fennessy knew precisely what was expected from his script. Having met the relatives, he recognised the immense suffering still being experienced after all of these decades, this empowered him to create an empathetic audience then drag them into the huge depth of this tragic story. The dialogue is authentic and sensitive, without being patronising or histrionic, thus invoking a genuine sadness for all concerned. His direction is most inventive as he blends present day with the past. Outside scenes are brought indoors. The humour of the family relationship is contrasted with the shattering drama of Timor. Superb direction, resulting in astonishing performances by the whole cast. The actors playing the reporters also portrayed the politicians and legal people involved with the event. Julia Blake never ceases to amaze me with her unfailing depth of performances, a truly wonderful actor.
Immediately on entering the theatre auditorium, the set design (Christina Smith) makes you gasp. The house has fly-screen walls, allowing movement in various rooms to be experienced. Black roof beams are in place – without tiles or ceiling panels – giving a compact feeling, yet allowing the complex lighting and the stunning helicopter effect to work. Congratulations to lighting designer Trent Suidgeest and sound composer Ben Collins for one of the most amazing scenes that I have experienced in the theatre. The audience were transported to Timor. Christina Smith (costume designer) brought a smile; she had the reporters dressed in the good old flares of the 70s.
This play is not morbid, but infuriatingly informative. How can our politicians and police simply agree that such events are unavoidable? This is a story that has been told many times in books, on TV and in a cinema film, at last it is now given a human face. 90 minutes of gripping theatre, punctuated with hilarity. In the national interest, a trip to the theatre that should not be missed.
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