Out of the dark: Malthouse & HUMAN ANIMAL EXCHANGE’s They Saw A Thylacine

In September 1936, the last thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger) died in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo, due to exposure, cold, and lack of care or concern by the superintendant. My grandparents remember seeing that thylacine – a female, called Benjamin – and for years I was fascinated by this bizarre creature with its dog-like gait, dark stripes, straight tail, and eerily large yawn, and more than a little frightened of the grainy black-and-white footage that would be rolled out every time someone mentioned extinction or cloning (this was the early 2000s, when the Australian Museum – headed by Dr Michael Archer – was attempting, however foolishly, to clone the creature). HUMAN ANIMAL EXCHANGE’s They Saw A Thylacine – presented by Malthouse Theatre – is a simple story about two women whose paths crossed with this animal in the 1930s, and despite the simplicity and elegance of its staging, it is powerful and quite moving.

Set against a photographer’s white backdrop, with several sturdy chairs and hanging moon-like lamps scattered around the space, the two women – Sarah Hamilton and Justine Campbell – tell two separate stories from opposite sides of the small island, that of a bounty hunter, and that of the zookeeper’s daughter. One is trying to capture the creature, the other is trying to keep it alive. Staged in the Malthouse’s Beckett theatre – a cosy Elizabethan-style indoor crucible of wood and beams – the haunting, eerie stories draw us closer, like a campfire story, and slip their fingers under our skin and give us goosebumps. While both women alternate portions of their stories, they appear in the background of the others’, providing voices and the ghostly presence of the animal they are about.
In many ways, the two women in the stories are analogous to the thylacines they sought to protect or capture – both are made a scapegoat, are victims of chauvinism, ingrained prejudice, and a system heavily stacked against them. But it is also a testament to their iron-wills – the women’s, and their thylacines’ – in that they don’t give up reluctantly, but instead rage, rage against the dying of the light, and do not let the creature go gentle into the night.
There are similarities here with Black Swan’s Extinction currently playing in Perth – the story of a terminally ill vet, the tiger quoll, and a conservation biologist funded by a mining company – and I wonder if it is intentional or coincidental. More species have disappeared in the twentieth century than ever before, and more are disappearing every day as a result of a booming global population and climate change. Humans might be able to adapt comparatively quickly to changes in our circumstances, but it takes animals and birds – the natural world – many many generations to readjust; before too long, there might be many more gaps in nature than we are comfortable with.

for RAW

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