Far from the barren plains of Bundanyabba, Malthouse Theatre’s iteration of Wake In Fright exists in a sea of darkness. As with Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, the one-woman show instead leans upon its language to conjure the foreboding outback town of the Yabba and its many characters.
It’s likely the audience is here having read the novel, seen the film or both, and so there’s no masking the dire direction in which the story is headed. Director Declan Greene’s adaptation of the Australian classic, however, holds a much bleaker conclusion than any of its predecessors.
Before plummeting headfirst down the rabbit hole that is the performance, lead actor Zahra Newman ties the show’s underlying commentary on white, Aussie bloke-ism to her own experience as a woman of colour in a country obsessed with the question “where are you from?”. It’s a head nod to the plaguing “new to the Yabba?” question the story’s protagonist, John Grant, is met with upon each new encounter.
From the outset, an almost unbearable tension is established. Between Newman’s lingering silences, her piercing glare and the pressure that constantly builds from the genius sound design, there’s an urging want for release.
As Grant falls deeper into the clutches of the Yabba’s aggressively hospitable characters, visual and sonic effects assault the senses, leaving the audience as disoriented and confused as Grant, whose grip on reality is now slowly slipping. Much like the way a spotlight is employed to confuse kangaroos during a night hunt, strobing lights, 3D effects and explosions of sound evoke a sensory overload. Shadows are thrown against the walls while Newman’s voice is distorted to a drawl: “mate, we’re taking you to see a doctor.”
To transform a piece of literature that leans so heavily on Australia’s endless, sunburnt plains and an assortment of unsettling characters into a one-woman performance is a near-unimaginable task, yet Newman’s delivery is transcendent. Her uncanny ability to transform her veneer instantaneously – often darting between bursts of hysterical cackling to an unnervingly still deadpan – not only allows her to glide seamlessly between characters, but it also furthers the tale’s menacing inferences.
An utterly affecting sensory ambush, Wake In Fright reimagines a piece of Australian iconography within a contemporary setting without sacrificing any of its magic. New to the Yabba? Don’t worry, mate – this is the best little town in Australia. What’s the worst that could happen?
Wake In Fright runs until Sunday July 14 at Malthouse Theatre.