dirtyland webimage

New Theatre in Newtown is no stranger to revolution. With a communist heart and a 70-odd-year history, New Theatre has been at the fore front of making theatre that matters. It has also been a theatre which has been run by a very part-time staff and has been a place where theatre folk have cut their teeth in a Pro-Am/Pro bono fashion. But in 2011, thanks to a government grant, New Theatre have offered 4 independent companies the opportunity to come into the theatre under a co-production (predominantly a co-op structure) to make work. Not just any work – new work. Most of which is new Australian work. How could I let this momentus occasion pass? How could I not acknowledge the shift in identity this has for the work at the New? This is big. BIG. And this program has my full support, as does the artists housed within the program – and the artists who are still under the pro-bono old structure of the New Theatre productions. Always.

Now, to talk about Dirtyland by Elise Hearst.

I have very limited capacity to talk about the play in relation to the program notes, as, I don’t in fact have a program as a guide. Somehow it escaped me. So I am writing blind(ish) as a punter who did not read the notes, nor find out the histories of the creative team – but you can spy an insight in Kevin Jackson’s diary entry here.

The web blurb goes something like this:
“What won’t Anya do to get away from her dirty, dirty land?
There is a burnt patch of grass in the middle of town that won’t grow back.
Half the town is hiding a secret.
The other half is missing.
A dark, adult fairytale. A haunting and subversive examination of the will to survive. Welcome to Dirtyland. Sharp, atmospheric and rebelliously comic, Dirtyland is a world with heart, plenty of guts and a fair bit of rock and roll.”

Dirtyland is the story about a girl who is driven to extremes to leave town in order to extract her rotten tooth. But in the telling of the tale we have a complicated world – a world wherein half the town has been killed, where mirrors are the most valuable currency, where there are corpses barely submerged under the topsoil…

I must declare that I am a fan of Paige Rattray – I think she is definitely a director to watch. I also declared at the end of 2010 that Megan Holloway (who plays Anya) is an actor to watch. That being said, I found this production to be beautiful, but the story difficult to follow. In this case, the writing played second to the commitment of the performances and the all encompassing vision of the direction in orchestrating all elements of design. Though it being a “dirtyland” and the stage being covered in, well, dirt… didn’t leave me much room for abstract thinking. A fairly literal design by David Fleischer, for what was to be a deeply metaphorical story.

For me, there was a lack of coherency in the driver of the narrative – and a few aspects of the premise left me bewildered and confused – if Anya was in such pain about her tooth – why didn’t she just yank it out? It’s a brutal and rough time- calling for brutal and rough measures? I didn’t really understand many of the characters connections to each other – nor was I interested in uncovering their underlying story as they appeared to be very clear about what they wanted, from whom and when – so there was no depths for me to plumb there. I also didn’t really understand what Mrs Brown was doing in the story -the gruff/insane mercenary? Why not just kill her, if she’s in your way – the town has already been through genocide – what’s one more to add to the tally in the grand scheme of things? Because there were just so many incoherent and bizarre premise points, I must admit, I found it impossible to care about the characters or the story.


I’m not one just to abandon a work in my seat and to go astral traveling. I was there to experience something. I was committed to experiencing something…

So I looked at this as a moving live art installation. I watched as the light shifted and changed on the 1950s dresses. I watched the solo work of Netta Yashchin inventing and inhabiting her space with gleeful abandon. I watched as the mother seduces her son’s friend and thought how beautiful the skin looked under the light. I watched and saw great images, beautiful compositions of bodies in space, exquisite examples of direction from Paige. I listened to the electronic hum and throb of hypnotic sound from composers Joseph Nizeti & Marcus Whale. I watched it as a contemporary dance piece. I watched it as performance art. As live art. I watched it as an installation. And it was beautiful.

The story and the writing, however, I found to be confused in tone – I wasn’t sure how I was to be reacting – was this an epic post- apocalyptic tale? Was this a comedy about the baseness of humanity? I just wasn’t sure, what to feel… other than confusion and distracted… The impression I got was this was a pastiche play – a collage of memories or images or thoughts about a rotten world, a rotten tooth and some rotten behaviour. Which I don’t mind as an exploration/idea, but for my money I think Amy Hardinham’s production of Lachlan Philpott’s Bustown achieved this (and had many similar thoughts/rules/characters within) to a greater extent and created a wholistic world, a story I could follow and characters I cared about.

That being said, I don’t mind at all that I didn’t get it. Because clearly other people did – Jason Blake did and you can check out his thoughts here and Time Out here and Crikey here.