Savage River, SBW Stables Theatre, 18 June-18 July; Griffin co-production with Melbourne Theatre Company and Tasmanian Theatre Company; touring to MTC Theatre and Backspace Theatre, Hobart. Tickets: +61 2 9361 3817 or +61 2 8002 4772 or www.griffintheatre.com.au
Savage River is an evocative title for a play. It instantly conjures up images of Kevin Bacon scheming to murder Meryl Streep, or Robert de Niro being extremely intense and vicious. However, as truth is almost always stranger than fiction and much more hazardous, it’s not surprising that Steve Rodgers’ Savage River is easily as perilous and even more dangerous – in unpredictable ways.
Rodgers is one of our best character actors and is rapidly becoming one of the rising playwrights. His first play, Ray’s Tempest, was staged at Belvoir St last year to what’s known as general acclaim. This new play was developed in Brisbane last year through the National Play Festival and was also well received. Now, a handsome production – directed by Peter Evans and designed by Stephen Curtis – has opened to a packed house at the Stables Theatre.
Rodgers was brought up in Tasmania and the experience resonates in his memory and imagination. He has chosen to set the play in Savage River – a blip on the map in the northwest wilderness of the island. Aside from vast mineral deposits, isolation is its main feature. It’s in a triangle of nowhere, more than 100kms southwest of Burnie, which itself is not exactly a seething metropolis; 270kms west of Launceston and 150kms northwest of Queenstown. Zeehan, population 1200, is the nearest town. According to a travel story about Savage River in the Sydney Morning Herald, “At the moment there are no signs indicating the name of the town and it could more accurately be called Australian Bulk Minerals – hardly a name designed to attract much interest.” Nevertheless, there is something intrinsically romantic and appealing, if forbidding, about the name “Savage River”.
A miner, Kingsley ( Ian Bliss) lives in a riverside shack with his 17-year-old son Tiger (Travis Cardona). The relationship between the two is an uneasy mixture of protectiveness and bullying on the part of the father and childlike trust and slyness from the boy. Work at the mine is uncertain and sporadic so when Kingsley comes home on payday with a paper-wrapped treat – a feed of Tiger’s favourite dagwood dogs – it’s cause for celebration and happiness in an otherwise grim and lonely existence. But it’s undermined by his anxiety over a gambling debt owed to his foreman that he hopes to repay with a big win on the dogs. No ordinary dogs, however, he’s going to be betting on a dog fight where one animal will kill the other.
And if that gives you the shivers, this is, as you probably know, the part of Tasmania where in the 1800s a convict known as “the Pieman” escaped to Hobart by scoffing his fellow escapees along the way. He did so on another occasion before being apprehended and hanged. Why was he called “the Pieman”? Because that had been his occupation in Hobart before he did any of the above. So much for the “legend” of Sweeney Todd. In the context of the play it’s an aside, but a telling and atmospheric one. Both Kingsley and Tiger are nice enough, on the surface, but there are undefined hints of emotions and secrets beneath the surface of plain man and simple boy that are vaguely troubling.
When Kingsley comes home from the pub one night with a drunken young woman in tow, the sense of discomfiture grows. Jude (Peta Sergeant) is the classic train wreck waiting to happen. She is out of control, lost in space and on the run from somewhere to nowhere. Her arrival is the classic dramatic catalyst for change and impending disaster; knowing that makes it no less alarming.
Sergeant has an electrifying presence and is at once sensual, bold and dangerous in her physicality and the way she occupies the stage. There is a strong impression that this character, Jude, is actually so sharp she could end up cutting herself, so reckless and pained is she by her hidden past. In more ways than one Sergeant is reminiscent of a young Kris McQuade, to the point where I’d like someone to cast them as mother and daughter and write a piece for their remarkable talent.
While Rodgers’ script is a little loosely woven and diffuse in the first half, he maintains forward momentum and has created three rich characters and a virtual fourth which is the strange, ratty shack set upon what looks like a rather beautiful but bleak slagheap of discarded magnetite. It’s lit in a mainly melancholy chill with occasional moments of warmth and homeliness (by Daniel Zika); and further atmosphere is washed through the narrative via a soundscape and music (created by Kelly Ryall, composer Jed Kurzel).
Savage River is entertaining and unnerving. Just when you think you know what’s going to happen, the story changes gear or direction and the obvious is avoided. Travis Cardona’s Tiger is a boy on the cusp of manhood whose yearning for knowledge, love and independence blossoms in the course of the play, while Ian Bliss’s Kingsley travels in the opposite direction. He is a sad and angry, nice and nasty man whose unconsidered right to his idea of masculinity gradually crumbles. And the ghost of his dead wife – Tiger’s Aboriginal mother – becomes a wisp of lost humanity in the cruel history of the island whose Indigenous people were long held to be “extinct”. Rodgers has made a fine piece of theatre and it’s good to know the production will be seen in Melbourne and Tasmania.