March into the archives : Basin review

Basin by Eastern Riverina Arts

Wagga Wagga Regional Theatre on 23 July 2016
Project playwright Vanessa Bates, writers Marty Boyle, Diana Lovett, David O’Sullivan, John Riddell, Sulari Gentill, Freda Marnie Nichol, Craig Palmer, director, designer Scott Howie, performers Virginia Anderson, Haya Arzidin, Stephen Holt, lighting design Sophie Kurylowicz, sound design: Dave Burraston, textiles Julie Montgarrett.

Basin is a play about a fictional town of that name where a man-made lake has been diminishing as a result of drought and an older town revealed as the water recedes. This happened to Adaminaby, the Snowy Mountains town when Lake Eucumbene evaporated during last decade’s drought such that the foundations of the old pre-dam town became visible. Imaginary Basin town is also reminiscent of Lake Jindabyne, another dam site in the Snowy Mountains and the setting for a film where the lake took on a menacing character, as the Australian landscape does in so many stories.

It’s neat that the title Basin refers to a fictional town but also a much bigger geographic area, such as the Murray Darling Basin. The fluid in this vessel is water, the subject given the project’s writers. Howie’s set design reflects the writing with seven bowl-like basins circling the stage. In the middle sits a rowboat, at first covered with a sheet as though unneeded during the drought but later as a prop for a refugee to tell of her sea journey to Australia.

Basin is populated with a variety of characters reflecting the demography of regional Australia: mostly older people but with also a new arrival, the refugee Lily who provides contrast and holds a metaphorical mirror up to the society. With slight adjustments to costumes—unbuttoning a shirt or adding a headscarf—and subtle changes of facial expression, the capable cast played multiple characters in stories more tragic than comic, including a number of deaths, caused not by drought but by drowning. With set and seating positioned on the stage of the Wagga Wagga Regional Theatre, this touring production was intimate—the actors within a few metres of us and firmly in focus.

If you’ve ever lived in a country town, then you’ll know a difference to living in a city is the feeling that everyone knows everyone else’s business. So it was through conversations between the characters that the stories in Basin were told. Robert delivering meals on wheels to the older residents, such as Arnie and Patsy who gossip about each other. Mary missing her brother Jimmy who drowned, which leads Jake to worry it was because the dammed water was insulted — not such a crazy suggestion if you’ve seen the public prayers that appear during extended drought.

Director and set designer Scott Howie developed the project with Newcastle-based playwright Vanessa Bates. “She had to develop a model which allowed for seven writers to write rather than sit around and talk about what to write,” explained Howie. “By the third workshop none of us really knew what the play was. Then Vanessa deftly explained a structure that fitted. There were pages and pages of writing left on the floor. The workshops included the writing of monologues, but once the characters started interacting, the writers had to let go a little of theirs and let the others write them.”

The ‘water’ theme was realised from various perspectives, but I wanted the lake to feature more strongly and with a more consistent character, like the landscape in Picnic at Hanging Rock. It would have made Basin more cogent. However, the short scenes resonated strongly, both for their dramatic impact and a sense of authenticity. Six of the writers live in country towns and a couple of the names I recognised as published novelists. Basin defies the adage that ‘too many chefs spoil the broth’ with a succinct and well-paced production that reveals concerns that lie beneath the surface of regional Australia.

After its eight-town tour of the the Riverina, Basin will next be performed in Dubbo at the Artlands 2016 National Regional Arts Conference and Festival, 27-30 October.