National Interest

MTC: Exploring the aftershocks of murder and loss, this powerful study of grief and memory personalises a painful and shameful moment in Australian history.
National Interest
On October 16, 1975, five Australian newsmen from two rival TV crews – Channel Nine’s Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters; and Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart from Channel Seven – were murdered in cold blood by the Indonesian military in the East Timorese village of Balibo.

The Australian government of the day, under Gough Whitlam, knew of the impending attack, and quickly learned that the men had been murdered, but for years the truth was denied, avoided and covered up. It took a month for the journalists’ families to learn that their children were missing and another month to confirm that they were killed. And still, after two official inquiries (1999 and 2007), those responsible for the murder of the Balibo Five – one of whom, Yunis Yosfir, went on to become Minister for Information in the Habibe Government in Indonesia in 1998 – have not been prosecuted for their crimes.

Unlike Robert Connolly’s powerful film Balibo (2009), Aidan Fennessy’s National Interest does not deal directly with the deaths of the Balibo Five, or the associated murder of journalist Roger East. Instead, it focuses on the impact that years of grief and unanswered questions have had on the family of sound recordist Tony Stewart, who was just 21 when he died. Fennessy, who both wrote and directed the play, has a personal connection to the material; Tony Stewart was his cousin, though as he notes in the program, the play is a‘fictionalised dramatization of real and imagined events’.

National Interest opens in 2007, at the home of the elderly June Stewart (Julia Blake), one year after the death of her husband. All the guests who had gathered to mark the sad occasion have left save for her daughter Jane (Michelle Fornasier), who wants to know the truth about when and how June first learned about the death of Tony, Jane’s brother. She is also worried about her aging mother’s health – specifically her memory. But this is not just a domestic drama. It is also a ghost story, about people haunted by the past.

The fictional construct of June’s possibly deteriorating mind provides Fennessy with a theatrical device though which we can see and hear her thoughts, fears and memories – though whether or not her memories are accurate, or even entirely her own (as intimated by an early exchange between mother and daughter about ‘infected memories’) is left for the audience to decide.

As the play unfolds, the figure of June’s dead son, Tony (the charismatic James Bell) slowly emerges onto the stage, accompanied by his Channel Seven colleagues Greg Shackleton (Stuart Halusz) and Gary Cunningham (Grant Cartwright, who has perhaps the weakest role of the piece). Later, Coroner Dorrelle Pinch (Polly Low), who oversaw the 2007 coronial inquiry into the death of Brian Peters in Balibo, also appears.

Weaving together past and present, fact and fiction, conjecture and eye witness accounts, the play skilfully creates a composite portrait of grief, loss and betrayal – of a woman betrayed by her government, and a government which betrayed its people for political and economic gain.

The ghosts are by turns young men joking and laughing, grim spectres reciting official details of their own murders, and sad spirits recognising the pain their deaths have caused. Halusz as Shackleton is impressive, but it’s Bell as Tony Stewart who is the most compelling of the three; an often quiet performance that nonetheless draws the eye at every turn. As June Stewart, Julia Blake is the play’s bedrock; she gives a remarkably nuanced, anguished and compassionate performance, even when all she has to do is sit quietly on the couch and observe proceedings. Low is also excellent.

Christina Smith’s costume designs and set – which lays bare the bones of the house in which the play takes place in the same way its text reveals the emotional truths of the story – are also excellent, as are the sound design and lighting.

National Interest is not perfect. There’s a certain stiff, contrived silence between mother and daughter early in the piece; some of the blocking is a trifle awkward (perhaps a result of having to adapt the work for a smaller stage, given that it was originally presented in the Heath Ledger Theatre, a 575-seat traditional proscenium theatre at the State Theatre Centre of WA); and on rare occasions the character’s speeches feel didactic and forced. But these are minor flaws, and quickly overshadowed by the play’s clever writing and lingering emotional impact.

The deaths of the Balibo Five were shocking; even more so the Australian government’s complicity in the resulting cover-up. No work of drama can ever make up for the murder of at least 100,000 people in East Timor by Indonesian forces, or for the deaths of Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart, but at least, thanks to such powerful and important works of drama as National Interest, their deaths will never be forgotten.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

National Interest
A Black Swan/Melbourne Theatre Company co-production
Written & Directed by Aidan Fennessy
Set and Costume Designer Christina Smith
Lighting Designer Trent Suidgeest
Sound Designer/Composer Ben Collins
Cast: James Bell (Tony Stewart), Julia Blake (June Stewart), Grant Cartwright (Gary Cunningham), Michelle Fornasier (Jane Stewart), Stuart Halusz (Greg Shackleton), Polly Low (Coroner Dorelle Pinch)

Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
6 June – 21 July

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Richard Watts

Sunday 17 June, 2012

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts