Earth cry: Stone Soup & Griffin Independent’s Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River

The thing I love most about the Stables theatre is the size of its stage. No other theatre in Sydney that I can think of has a stage quite like it – in size, shape, or layout – and I am constantly amazed at how malleable it is; no two productions ever feel quite the same – sometimes the space feels bigger, sometimes smaller, sometimes grander or more intimate, sometimes even a different shape, as directors, designers, and theatre-makers call upon our imaginations to inhabit and make total the world presented on stage. As you enter the theatre from the stairs, the first thing you notice is the dusty light, a golden glow like the sun, like lamp-light, like candles and canvas; the floor – that precious little diamond space – is covered in planks of timber, time-worn and much-loved, creams and greens and reds and browns and greys, all slotted together in a jigsaw of a stage, like a patchwork quilt, a farm seen from the air. To one side, a ladder and chair; to another, a tyre swing; behind it, a canvas backcloth. And as the lights dim, a figure enters, breathing heavily, covered in dust and mud and dirt, and the space begins to hum with a resonance I have not quite seen in that space for a little while. And it is beautiful.

Stone Soup’s production of Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River, a ‘new’ play by Reg Cribb, presented with Griffin Independent, is a massive old sprawling story, the sort of story that spans generations, decades, hectare after hectare, the kind of story that is about people trying to live in a landscape which is slowly (or perhaps rapidly) disappearing from under the feet, through their fingers. Cribb’s play is the story of Thomas Murray, a fifth-generation farmer, who has grown up alongside the Darling River. As his life slowly unravels, so too does the river, until he is left with “six inches of mud and shit,” and decides to try to right the long-buried darkness of his family’s past, of the secrets that lie beneath the land, and fight to stay alive. No matter how incongruous it seems, the Griffin stage is almost a perfect match for Cribb’s sprawling epic, and this production – directed by Chris Bendall – is a beautiful, raw, and at times poetic evocation of a land, a man, and our relationship to our cultural past.
Dann Barber’s set and costumes seem hewn from the Darling landscape itself – all wood and canvas rawness, forged with blood and sweat, “sheep-shit-and-shinglebacks.” While his costumes are entirely functional (albeit whimsical in one instance), there are trapdoors and secrets concealed in his set which raise the bar for designers working in the Griffin space; Barber makes the space seem larger and deeper (both in height and depth), than I have seen before, and to watch it unfold is a pleasure. There’s a simple kind of magic at work here, a kind of roughness in abstraction and simplicity, but it’s a simplicity which creates richness and texture, detail and emotion. Alexander Berlage’s lighting is a beautiful complement to the set, using reds, blues, golds, and greens, to play off the timber floor, the canvas backcloth, to create shadows and memories around the walls of the space. Kingsley Reeve’s sound design – using guitar compositions, nature recordings, and the occasional snippet of Peter Sculthorpe – is rich, multi-layered, and further enhances the very tangible world that Bendall and his team of designers and actors have created. It would be fascinating to see what this production would look like, played outside on the Darling River itself, surrounded by the very landscape it evokes and lives in.
Grant Cartwright brings an honesty to Thomas Murray which morphs from shyness to rawness as the past looms large in Murray’s life, and the realities of being a farmer come to bear upon his mental and physical well-being. Francesca Savige as Lucy Banfield, Thomas’ childhood friend and later wife, is strong-willed and headstrong, knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to hurt people she loves along the way; her delineation between the younger and older Lucy’s is subtle yet clear, and her brief appearance as Janice Banfield is memorable and strangely fierce. Bjorn Stewart, as Thomas’ friend Billy, is also strong, and the changes between the childhood and adult versions of his character are clear, compelling, and hint at an undercurrent which Cribb doesn’t quite need to spell out for his audience. Vanessa Downing and Nicholas Papademetriou appear as the rest of Cribb’s characters – from ghosts, fathers, and mothers, to British tourists and a bogged sheep; there is no sense of caricature in any of these characters, but rather an honesty and generous warmth which says ‘no matter what’s happened to these people or what they’ve done, they’re still human, deserving of compassion and truth.’ There is also a strong physicality to Bendall’s direction which the cast all embrace with relish, and they make full use of the trapdoors built into Barber’s set.
Underneath Bendall’s robust exterior is a similarly robust loudly-beating heart in Cribb’s play, which revolves around three main questions or ideas – what is our relationship to the land; what is our impact upon it; and how we can (try to) fix it? By extension, there’s also a fourth question – how do we interact with others and those we love when our dreams and passions slip through our fingers? By his own admission in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Cribb says he writes plays that “really should be films. I always end up doing it the other way around,” and indeed there is something rather filmic about the way Thomas Murray unfolds, jumping back and forth across generations and Murray’s own lifetime, the way these characters live in the landscape and are affected by it. But there’s also something incredibly theatrical in the way Cribb’s story takes us to these places, in the way Bendall’s production (and Barber’s set) works, in the way that Cribb’s story is about our relationship to the land in a physical sense, but also a mythological, historical, cultural, linguistic-narrative sense. “I keep coming back to ideas of identity and our relationship with the country. We can’t grow up as a country until we admit and understand certain things, but I’m trying not to bash people over the head with the themes,” Cribb says.
This is where Cribb’s play succeeds, where his strength as a writer comes through. This is a big story that covers over 800km of river, but it is concerned with the people caught up in its flow, with the way that as the river dries up they’re not able to make a living off their land as they once were; at the way the shrinking river is revealing long-buried stories from the past, stories which point to a darker and more dangerous past than we might want to believe now. The relationship between Indigenous and white Australians is also a key part of Cribb’s play, and while he doesn’t try to find a solution to the pain and violence in our not-so-distant history, he shows us that we need to face it to be able to move forwards. “If there is one good thing to come our of a drought,” Cribb writes in the production’s program, “it is that the sins and bones of our bloodied history are being thrown up out of dry riverbeds… and dare us to face the unthinkable truth… We live in a culture of collective amnesia [;] we don’t want to believe there is a price to be paid for living in the Lucky Country.”
There are a few uncomfortable moments in Cribb’s play, but they do not draw down the story but rather propel it forwards – through facing our past, he suggests, we are able to take control of the future. “We tend to deal a lot with middleclass and urban concerns but that’s not the world I’m from,” Cribb says. “I’m a country boy raised in the wheat belt. It mightn’t be as sexy or funky, but I find the concerns of country people more real. I hope we’re not becoming scared of the big narratives about this country, the stories that need to be told.” Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River is a great big play – on a personal scale, and on a narrative scale – as it covers decades, thousands of kilometres, and a journey to find the junction of the two great rivers, the Darling and the Murray, in the middle of the worst drought in a hundred years. There’s a richness and a rawness here which is hard to ignore, and it works very much in its favour; as the first production at Griffin for 2016, it sets a very high standard for the rest of their season, both independent and mainstage. 

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