How do we fix Country?: ATYP’s Sugarland

This review was written for artsHub.

In 2011, ATYP began a series of residencies in the Northern Territory town of Katherine. Using experiences and observations gained overt the next two years, writers Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair have created a play in an attempt to understand what growing up in a remote Australian community is like. That play is Sugarland. Sugarland is not sugar-coated, though, nor should it be. True to its origins, it is about worlds colliding, about issues that are not so much clear-cut black-and-white as they are big, immediate and extraordinarily real. Following the lives of five teenagers, it is about growing up in a country where rules and government schemes are often counter-intuitive and do more harm than good. But amongst the politics and racism and bureaucracy, we witness five young people navigating their way through this uncertain terrain with love, grace, humour, resilience and a desire to keep going.

On Jacob Nash’s rough square of red earth, the five teenagers along with a social worker, create an intimate patchwork of stories – from the humorous to the touching and bleakly real, Coopes and Blair are not afraid to show life as it is in remote communities, in all its raucous rambunctious and emotion-drenched glory. Erica (Elena Foreman) is a girl whose father is based at the nearby RAAF base, a girl who has erected a defensive wall of impassioned indifference to combat her constant moving around the country, but it also hides a tendency for self-mutilation. Aaron (Narek Arman) is an Iraqi boy who loves the land around Katherine, who seems at home among the patchwork community. Nina (Dubs Yunupingu) is a girl with a voice that could command the wet season to do her bidding, a girl who feels trapped by her family and desperately seeks a way out. Charles (Michael Cameron) is a boy who seems content to go with the flow, and there is a charming side to him underneath all the bluster. Hunter Page-Lochard’s Jimmy is a close cousin to his Ruben in Belvoir’s Brothers Wreck; a young man adrift after an injured hand renders him unable to play football, there is something affecting about his swagger and adrenaline-fuelled antics. As Penny, the teacher-cum-social worker, Rachael Coopes tries to hold each of the five teenagers on the straight and narrow, but it is never easy, and she too seems to be coming into direct confrontation with the system which seems so heavily stacked against the young people. While it is only too easy to jump to a conclusion about who or what ‘the system’ is, it is perhaps symptomatic of a larger cultural prejudice against common-sense and constructive policy which allows schemes such as those discussed in the play to exist. Here, for these five teenagers, ‘the system’ is simply the world in which they find themselves trapped, as they try to work out who they are, what they are doing, where they are going, and what matters to them. It’s not an easy eighty minutes of theatre, but it is beautiful, rich, and rewarding. David Page and Fraser Corfield's direction is restrained and invisible, ensuring that the five teenage actors are left to create their own recognisable characters without ever feeling forced or constricted; Jez McGuire’s lighting is simple but rich; Guy Webster’s sound design is finely-attuned to the world of each of the characters, and creates a sense of place effortlessly; Ruby Langton-Batty’s costumes are barely costumes but rather clothes, well-suited to the characters...

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Theatre playlist: 54. End Credits, from Australian Rules, Mick Harvey

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