Just like in the real Australia, an election is looming in the country electorate of Western Slopes which means a heightened sense of politicisation and line drawing about key policies in the hopes of securing the all-important votes. But a changing world, from climate change to social issues, threatens to throw a wrench into an otherwise straight-forward campaign season.
Blood on the Wattle gets its title from Henry Lawson’s 1891 poem “Freedom on the Wallaby” written in support of the Australian working man rebelling against upper class oppression. Geoffrey Sykes’s play draws on similar notions of freedom, the Australian spirit, and the image of the Aussie battler in its exploration of current political concerns. Karl Matters (Ken Welsh) is a conservative Federal Member for the farming electorate of Western Slopes, who is struggling to toe the party line on matters of climate change, but he has strong feelings about national security and the dreaded “boat people”. One day he meets a new-comer Vania (Befrin Axtjärn Jackson) who opens his eyes to poetry and optimism but challenges his beliefs on refugee policy by revealing her traumatic personal experiences being resettled in Australia. With campaign assistant Louise (Kloud Milas), the three develop a plan to bring real, meaningful change to Western Slopes.
The script was structured in short vignette scenes that required the audience to piece together Karl’s predicament through off-hand comments with some points, like Karl’s interest in climate change, never coming to complete fruition. While there were hints towards a larger political context with Karl and Louise’s interactions with protestors and other politicians, the primary focus of Blood on the Wattle was the developing relationship between Karl and Vania. The story employed a variation on the trope of the manic pixie dream girl with a free-spirited, mysterious younger woman using her trauma and memories of war, detention, and rape to help the stubborn, sheltered older man see that his perspective on asylum seekers was cruel. Their central relationship was manipulative and uncomfortable with Karl repeatedly overstepping Vania’s boundaries and putting her in obliging positions by securing her housing and employment in his office. Then, in the second half of the play, titled “Her Story”, the tables were ostensibly turned with Vania convincing Karl to remain in her home while she berated him with criticism of the Australian government’s refugee policies and its involvement in the war in Iraq, his complicity as a politician with his own power, and memories of violence, including subjecting Karl to some of the sexualised abuse she endured. The series of scenes in Vania’s apartment that night was particularly troubling as it was unclear what the two characters’ motives were and the high emotional stakes felt unearned.
Welsh’s characterisation of Karl was convincing as an average Australian bloke with a confident swagger and no real reason to challenge his perspective on life. Jackson offered a quieter confidence in her portrayal of Vania whereas Milas’s Louise was proud and demanding. Snippets of performance poetry delivered dreamily by Jackson as well as extracts from Lawson gave the narrative some texture and were a nice nod to the radical political culture of poetry. Under Sykes’s direction, all three actors seemed comfortable on stage, giving the performance a relaxed and casual feel. This then served to sharpen the moments of racism, sexism, and trauma retelling featured in their interactions by framing them as mundane.
Australia’s political landscape is fertile ground for the kind of conversations Blood on the Wattle introduced including racism and white supremacy, colonialism and Australian war crimes, nationalist myths and the reality of our immigration policies, or the recent revelations of sexual violence in institutions of power and prestige. In the very title there are evocations of Lawson’s settler colonialist narrative and the genocide of Aboriginal people as documented in the book by Bruce Elder also titled Blood on the Wattle. Unfortunately, with such a scattered structure and an over-reliance on buzzwords to fill in for complex political concerns, this Blood on the Wattle was clumsy and lacked the appropriate nuance to rigorously engage with those concerns.
Blood on the Wattle is running at Richard Wherrett Studio from March 25th – 26th before moving to Chippen St Theatre from March 31st – April 9th
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