Ghosts in the Scheme. Written and directed by Scott Rankin. Big hART, Canberra Theatre Centre, South East Arts and Cooma-Monaro District Shire Council. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Until September 5. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
Audiences who have been fortunate enough to see Big hArt's earlier works such as Ngapartji Ngapartji, Namatjira and Hipbone Sticking Out will appreciate the company's commitment to insightful and theatrically exciting community theatre.
Writer and director Scott Rankin has worked closely with communities to illuminate our understanding and appreciation of the issues they face. The result has been theatrically dynamic revelations that have given voice to a community and a people who may be seldom heard by the wider community.
In their latest venture, Big hArt have attempted to focus on the 120,000 immigrants that came to Australia to work on and service the Snowy River Hydro Electric Scheme. Ghosts in the Scheme is a theatrical telling of their stories at a time when the nation faces its responsibilities and actions on the issues of immigration and refugees.
Big hART reminds us of the enormous contribution the immigrants who worked on the scheme made to our nation. Ghosts in the Scheme is a timely reminder of the debt we owe to the workers who gave their blood, sweat and tears to build a new nation.
However, audiences are advised to expect the unexpected. Where one might expect the personal anecdotes and experiences of workers on Australia's greatest engineering feat, Big hART has chosen to touch on the lives of the many through the devised drama of three former residents of Cooma.
Morgan (Bruce Myles) worked as a photographer during the time of the scheme and now, in his retirement, fossicks through his boxes of old photographs. Grace, his wife (Anne Grigg), has had a long-standing affair with Morgan's best friend Tony and now longs for a new life. Tony (Lex Marinos) laboured on the scheme and is now suffering from motor neuron disease. Rather than expressing the emergence of a cosmopolitan, multicultural and nation-changing community through the three characters, writer Rankin has written a love triangle of adultery and disillusion.
Rather than illuminate our understanding of the significance of the Snowy River Scheme through the story of his three protagonists, Rankin has left it to the remarkable and evocative music and lyrics of the talented musicians of Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen to provide an insight into the lives of those who celebrated and struggled, suffered and triumphed and through their courage and their endeavour forged a new Australia.
Unfortunately, the story of the men and women who have now become the ghosts of the scheme is diminished by the saga of Morgan, Grace and Tony, however well-acted it is by these seasoned professional performers. Has the legacy of the engineering marvel really come to this?
Community theatre can be a challenging beast to tame. What may start with a fascinating and worthwhile concept can quickly grow out of control as a result of expansive research, community consultation and theatrical conceptualisation.
Director Rankin's layered use of grainy archival film footage and the soul-stirring, sounds of Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen provide the atmospheric and historical backdrop to the tale, but the production lacks balance and cohesion. At its Canberra premiere, it remains a work in progress, paved with good intentions but in need of a more focused vision.