The 1980s - Imperialism and Oppression

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Long opposed to apartheid, the New in the 1980s staged two mainstream plays based on real people’s experiences of the regime. The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs and The Biko Inquest, both directed by Frank McNamara, were well received by critics and audiences. The first, based on Sachs’ Jail Diary, is a white South African’s description of his detention without charge or trial. Mark Butler played the lead role in a production praised for performances free from melodramatics matching the script’s spare, unsentimental writing.

Setting: a cell in Cape Town early 1960s

Albie: I was entering my chambers this morning. I had parked my car and was at the entrance of the building. I felt a hand on my shoulder. There were men in suits all around me. I am detained under the 90-day law. After 90 days I can be arrested for a further 90 days. And then again. Ad infinitum.

He scratches 1/10/63 on the cell wall.

It is Tuesday October the first 1963.

He scratches his initials.

I am Albert Louis Sachs.

He scratches a single scratch.

Day One.

In the distance he hears the chime of a clock. Albie instinctively reaches for his watch, remembers it’s been taken by a guard. He listens, the clock strikes 6.

Thank God for that.

The Biko Inquest is an account of medical student leader Steve Biko who was involved in organisations promoting the rights of fellow blacks. After his arrest in 1977 by South African police for distributing “subversive” pamphlets, he was chained naked in a cell while being interrogated by security police and died of a head injury. David Ritchie’s portrayal of the Biko family’s barrister was reviewed as outstanding in a work which was a “relentless indictment of police brutality and medical duplicity”.

The subject of Arthur Kopit’s Indians, directed by Stanley Walsh, was 19th century white America’s relations with the indigenous inhabitants, a blend of Wild West Show, vaudeville and circus debunking the Hollywood myth of the brave Western hero taming the primitive savage. (Needing bull skulls, vegetarian production manager Beate Zanner fetched six heads from an abattoir, boiled them and stripped off the flesh, only to have four stolen from her backyard.)

Chief Red Cloud: They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they never kept but one. They promised to take our land and they took it.

Donald Freed’s The Quartered Man set in the American Embassy in Costa Rica concerned Intelligence interference in South America:

There used to just one superpower … now there are two ... the USA and the CIA.

Sandinista! in agit-prop style portrayed the politics behind the scenes and the extent of American involvement in Nicaragua where, after the revolutionary Sandinistas won power from dictator Somoza in 1979, the USA began destabilising the new regime, withdrawing foreign aid and funding Contra anti-government rebels.

Aboriginal issues were explored in John Summons’ The Savage Heart, short listed in the 50th anniversary competition and presented as a rehearsed reading. (The detailed story of the Myall Creek massacre and murder trials was recounted in NT member Roger Milliss’s epic work Waterloo Creek.) In 1988 and 1989 the New donated to the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust $1 from each sold ticket and $5 from each member’s dues. (In the 1990s a “Sorry” book was placed in the foyer.)

The Death of Phillip Robertson: the true story of a black death in custody was staged in 1988. The Fannie Bay Gaol prisoner was asphyxiated by vomit after being struck on the back of the neck in 1979; a charge of manslaughter against a prison officer was dropped. The play’s author John Tomlinson, Secretary of the Northern Territory Council for Civil Liberties, sat through the inquest and thought a miscarriage of justice had occurred. His play was constructed from transcripts from the inquest plus his own prologue. The cast included Lydia Miller.

Jean-Claude Grumberg’s Dreyfus in Rehearsal is set in a 1931 Jewish ghetto in Poland where an amateur theatre troupe is rehearsing a play about the Dreyfus affair. Comedy is used as sugar coating for a bitter pill in its anti-fascist message.

An “entertaining and thoughtful production”, No Room for Dreamers by local writer George Hutchinson told the story of eccentric sex reformer William Chidley, a marginalised Sydney figure.

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