Written by Jane Miller and produced by ‘15 Minutes from Anywhere’, Kenneth Mackay’s classic novel, The Yellow Wave (1895), comes strikingly to life as a satire under the direction of Beng Oh at La Mama Courthouse, Melbourne.
Kenneth’s tale envisions Australia as invaded by Russians, in 1954 in the wake of the British sending its forces to India. This renders the land down under defenceless. Throughout the plot also runs a story of romance: an ill-fated loved triangle between two men and one woman.
Beng Oh and Jane Miller, however, adapted this classic tale, with its xenophobic and patriotic narrative, to the ongoing discourses about immigration, race and ethnicity. What entails is a hysterical comedy.
There were only two actors (Keith Brockett and John Marc Desengano) playing the roles of 20 characters. Witty, sparkling, jocular, the small stage brimmed with their energy amidst the dozens of characters they jumped into in turns. But they were not the only performers.
There was Andrea McCannon, the narrator of the story, and its lifeline. While she told the tale, both Keith and John hid behind the only bench placed on the stage and appeared, reappeared and/or disappeared as the story unfolded. They were extraordinary in their expression, their moods, their pitch.
The set was austere: a bench, centre stage and the seating arrangement in rows. The bench served as both discontinuance and continuity; both as the present and the past; both as the light and the dark; both as the change and the status quo. The lighting was enough to heighten tension. The soundscape added to the satirical marvel: comic swooshes, overdramatised pants, puffs, blows and wheezes, and sound effects, deep, vibrant and perfectly timed against the backdrop of varied accents and character changes.
Beng Oh is a Melbourne based Asian-Australian director who’s staged a wide range of productions, which include The Yellow Wave, Mein Kampf, True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, Tom Fool and Porcelain. Passionate about diversity, new work and queer theatre, he is attracted to heightened and non-naturalistic texts.
“We were also concerned,” said the director “about the lack of diversity in Australian theatre and its core myths of ability and plasticity, i.e. that non-white actors somehow simply aren’t good enough and are only appropriate for a small selection of roles. So we set to work armed with two wonderful Asian Australian actors, Keith Brockett and John Marc Desengano, and were joined in time by our sharp-witted narrator, Andrea McCannon.”
Jane Miller, author of several plays including Perfect Stillness, The Painter, Happily Ever After, True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, Motherfucker and Cuckoo, told Peril that one of the major challenges was to condense the novel into a play-length script punchy enough for a satire. But that she did – condensing the original 400-page script into 75 action-packed minutes.
Oh has said, “The material is quite racist and this show is the solution – we’ll flush the racists out for you.” This is evident from the choice of only two actors (Keith and John) to portray over 20 characters, both Asian-Australians, who tend to justify that Asians have due skills to display their art in a versatile and professional fashion.
This is pretty much evident from the accents these actors made use of and changed, the demeanour they adopted, the voice modulations they picked, the body language they used etc. Both actors played Aussie characters in addition to the non-Aussies. This was ironic. Besides, they have Andrea in their cast to broaden the scope of the play to a pluralistic outlook from within and without. They succeeded in achieving the same.
Performances by Keith, John and Andrea were a joy to watch. The play gripped the audience from the beginning to the end.
The performers exuded self-confidence, knowledge, expertise and craft. A truly laugh out loud show. At its core, the play is a comedy, artfully addressing serious issues at hand. Not to be missed. A must-watch.
Based on the novel by Kenneth Mackay, produced by ’15 Minutes from Anywhere’, The Yellow Wave is on at the La Mama Courthouse from May 10-20.
Screenplay: Jane Miller
Director: Beng Oh
Actors: Keith Brockett, John Marc Desengano
Narration: Andrea McCannon
Sets and costume design: Emily Collett
Lighting design: Matthew Barber