Elbow Room & Metro Arts The Independents
Metro Arts Basement
20 November – 7 December 2013
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Prehistoric is a story about Brisbane in the 11th year of the Bjelke-Petersen administration – a very different place from the Brisbane of 2013… OR IS IT?
In the late 1970s, the relationship of young Australians to culture, society, politics and technology went through changes that were quick, profound and – most importantly – intimately connected. This era was the turning point in Brisbane – whether or not we realise it – becoming one of the most interesting cultural incubators, not just in Australia, but in the Anglophone world.
You live at the remote edge of a civilisation in economic free-fall, about to destroy itself in a nuclear war.
(Like anyone, you’d rather not think about that.)
You live in one of the most corrupt cities on the planet, under a state government elected by a minority who mostly live elsewhere.
Again, you’d rather be having fun. Maybe making some noise.
Except the government has significantly expanded the powers of the police to stop you.
Also, all the computers are owned by corporations, and all the phones are tied to the wall.
Love you, Brisbane.
Whether or not you come away thinking the title is apt, this is a play about Queensland that begs immediate viewing by Queenslanders. It’s a look inside the Bjelke-Peterson police state years and yet it’s all too familiar. What happens when police name badges become optional and officers detain a guy after dropping a tissue in Queen Street Mall? No, this is not ancient history, but recent events recorded in Brisbane.
Backbone Youth Arts originally developed Prehistoric, firstly via a commissioned draft and then in two successive creative developments in 2012 with Kathryn Marquet, Anthony Standish, Melanie Zanetti and Steve Toulmin. Writer and Director, Marcel Dorney notes, “We weren’t ‘there’ in 1979… So we formed our own band, and played our own music, because we could think of no better tribute.” Dorney asks the tough questions, and without providing all the answers, offers us multiple veiled (and not so) warnings about history repeating.
The band of which Dorney speaks comes together, as bands do, when a group of friends (or strangers) have something to say. Their message is loud, and if you can make out the lyrics, which are mostly shouted in an appropriately antiestablishment manner by Anna Straker, it’s pretty powerful. Joining Straker in her punk band are Kathryn Marquet, Anthony Standish and Steve Toulmin. The original music, by Toulmin and Dorney, might be for some the most challenging aspect of this production. But it shouldn’t be. There’s a whole heap of intelligent raging going on beneath the clanging, clashing sounds of amplified instruments and “Fuck yous”. It’s a play with punk and spunk! There are perhaps two songs too many – the show runs a little longer than it needs to (for me, without delving deeper into one particular story or another, ninety minutes would be ideal) – and by the last couple of songs I’m thinking, “Okay, I get it!” The action is well punctuated by the music though – and the climax counts on it – and it’s not to everyone’s taste, but nor was it when punk became popular in Brisbane…or anywhere else.
It’s a time of rebellion, despair and desperation, of “ministerial corruption, the demolition of our heritage architecture, stories of police brutality…” (Metro Arts Programming Manager Kieran Swann), and it’s an era that we’d rather not be reminded of. Unfortunately, many of the play’s issues are, once again, all too familiar. The actors bring their characters to life after they’ve entered the basement space to inform us that they weren’t there to witness events, but they can certainly share a version of what happened, so if when it happens again we can see it coming, and boy, do we see it!
Prehistoric is a strong ensemble piece, giving voice to each character and ultimately, giving many opportunities for the voices to join together in poignant protest. Characters are nicely drawn and intelligently realised.
Dorney has written and directed a vital play; I expect to see an adaptation of Prehistoric on our small screens at some stage, as well as on the main stages. It deserves a broader audience, and despite – or because of – its specific setting and political references, looks set to serve us as a contemporary example of the way good theatre has always recorded a version of historical events, and tested popular opinion and the establishment. A less-explicit (but does that make it less powerful?) adaptation for senior students would be an excellent resource for schools.
Whether you were there at the time or not, you should live through Prehistoric.