Writer/director Jonathan Biggins presents Australia Day, a unique comedic slice of life set in the country town of Coriole – taking us back to the heart of why we celebrate our nationhood.
Australia Day has become such a cliche of what it means to be Australian. Why do you think we struggle so much with our identity?
The day has been somewhat hijacked by commercial interests and nationalistic sentiments but my experiences as an Australia Day ambassador in regional areas showed me another side – local communities taking a quiet pride in their place and their country, welcoming new citizens and preserving aspects of community life that are threatened by globalisation, demographic change and all the other challenges facing our society. Unlike America, a multicultural nation united by an idea, we’re a mixed bag without a unifying aspiration other than the notion of the fair go – which is not a bad thing to strive for but it’s getting harder to do that as the noisy minority want the fair go to only extend to them.
Do you think Australia Day still has relevance? Is it inclusive? Is it even possible to be inclusive in a nation of deviants?
It’s as inclusive as you make it. Most of the people who whinge about Australia Day have never actively done anything to either celebrate it or change it. Nation of deviants? Not quite sure what that means but the thorny issue of reconciliation aside (and it’s a big issue) I’d have thought the First Fleet was one of the most deviant social experiments ever devised and success could only come about through inclusiveness – it was everybody against a hostile environment and in a sense that’s what forged the national character. I suspect it had little to do with Gallipoli.
Tell me a little about the characters you’ve created. How do they reflect modern Australian communities?
They represent the old and the new that sometimes rub together a little uncomfortably. The stalwarts of the organising committee are the mayor, his deputy, the head of the CWA and a local builder. Into that conservative mix are thrown two newcomers – a Greens councillor who moved up from Melbourne and a young Australian-born Vietnamese schoolteacher. But change is incremental and personal ambitions can get in the way.
What are the biggest conflicts or ideologies do you think that disrupt community harmony? Is this perhaps what Australia Day is actually celebrating?
Self-interest and intolerance. But I think Australia Day is perfectly placed to celebrate diversity despite the vested interests that often resist it. And look at how much the country has changed in the last thirty years – social attitudes might move slowly but they do move. And if you don’t engage in the debate, progress will be even slower.
Why have you chosen to set the show in a country town?
I think it’s interesting that despite the fact that more than 90 per cent of us live in urban areas, much of our national psyche and self-image is forged by the country. Our cities, the odd vista aside, are about as uniquely Australian as Auckland. But the bush still has a grip on our imaginations and the regions are bearing the brunt of demographic change – from a comedic and dramatic point of view that makes it much more interesting.
As an urban-based theatre company, how do you safeguard against parochialism or stereotyping country areas?
I grew up in Newcastle and at that time it was a very big country town. And have you visited Melbourne lately? I don’t think you could get more parochial than that! And let’s face it, no two country areas are the same – Byron Bay is very different from Mt Isa. But people are people wherever you go, all prey to the same fears and hopes.
What should we expect for your performance in Lismore?
A great night out that firstly makes you laugh, then occasionally makes you cringe and then, I hope, think. Like all true comedies, the play has something to say but it says it in a way that makes you listen – by being entertaining.
Tuesday and Wednesday at Lismore City Hall. 7.30pm.
Bookings 1300 066 772.