16 June, 2020
Learn how Arts Centre Melbourne’s provocative theatre commission Anthem made it from page to stage, and hear directly from the five creatives behind the work. The result taking the pulse of Australia as a nation today, told through a collective of voices.
Over 20 years ago, four Australian playwrights and a composer came together to create Who's Afraid of the Working Class? A play forged under the harsh economic policies of the era - a confronting work, interspersed with humour, tenderness and humanity. It tackled issues of politics, race, sex, identity and the class struggle, featuring a series of interwoven vignettes that captured the zeitgeist of suburban Australia in the 90s.
Who's Afraid … became a seminal piece of Australian theatre that inspired a generation of theatre-makers, as well as feature film - 2009’s Blessed. For its five creators, Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela, it remains one of their best-known plays.
Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? production images from 1998. Photography: Viv Méhes
Two decades later, Arts Centre Melbourne invited the same team of four writers and one composer to create a new work that speaks to the updated anxieties of modern Australia. To again take a pulse of the nation, and dramatise what they found.
“A great play articulates something not yet fully understood, peeling away layers to reveal something not yet seen,” says Andrew Bovell.
Anthem is set on trains, where our conflicting identities around class, race, gender and sexuality clash. Four separately authored works are woven together, in the one place where we all still cross paths – the daily commute. Featuring a large, diverse ensemble of performers and musicians, the work premiered at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2019 to great acclaim.
A collaborative work of this nature is rare in theatre-making, as is the commissioning of new Australian work for the mainstage. “In the past ten years, the idea of the new Australian play has struggled to find enough support.” says Melissa Reeves.
Partnerships were engaged across the performing arts sector to support the project from initial scriptwriting all the way to the stage.
“Anthem was an artistically ambitious piece of theatre that involved a number of partnerships,” says Arts Centre Melbourne’s Creative Producer, Theatre & Contemporary Performance Daniel Clarke “and required huge buy-in from philanthropic partners to ensure the work was able to be realised to an international standard.”
Donor Linda Herd supported the work, and was struck by the raw quality of the writing.
“Having the opportunity to be involved at various stages in the process has been a great privilege,” she says. “Creating and performing new work is a vital part of the cultural life of Australia and in an age when arts funding is declining it is important that this area of the industry is allowed to continue to grow”.
For Arts Centre Melbourne, the success of a play like Anthem indicates the wealth of creative talent that exists in Australia, and how powerful theatre can be when the local industry is properly supported.
“It is imperative that we support and nurture new Australian plays that speak to our place in the world and our time,” says Melissa. “All art has a universality, but art that talks to a specific time and place is also part of an ongoing appraisal and reappraisal of what is happening right now; what battles we need to fight; what orthodoxies we need to challenge.”
Anthem production images from 2019. Photography: Pia Johnson
Anthem was initiated by Arts Centre Melbourne. It has been assisted by the Australian Government’s Major Festivals Initiative, managed by the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, in association with the Confederation of Australian International Arts Festivals Inc., commissioned by Melbourne International Arts Festival, Arts Centre Melbourne, Sydney Festival and Perth Festival.