Fennessy brings family ghosts to the stage

11 May 2012

AustralianPlays.org reports on an Australian play on stage


Whenever I would read yet another article, yet another program about Timor, I would think of Tony's mum, my auntie...That was the basis for this play—how do you survive what is a terrible loss within your life and your family's life when it is constantly being represented? The great irony is that I am doing it again, so I hope I've got to the heart of the matter.

Playwright and director Aidan Fennessy's reason for wanting to tell the story of National Interest is about as personal as it gets.

It's about his family.

His cousin, Tony Stewart, is one of those now known as the 'Balibo Five,' a group of young journalists—three Australian and two Britih—who died while reporting on the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975.

Public perception of the tragic event shifted after a 2007 inquest into the deaths. Previously the killings had been characterised as an accident, the men caught in crossfire, but the NSW coroner found that they were "were shot and or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of the battle."

The 2009 feature film Balibo, directed by Robert Conolly and scripted by Conolly and David Williamson (from a book by Jill Jolliffe), recounted the incident in shocking detail, culminating with the massacre of the idealistic young men.

(The demise of veteran journalist Roger East, who was investigating their disappearance at the behest of the young José Ramos-Horta, was also portrayed.)

The inquest and the film must have been of some comfort to the families involved, in that a more accurate picture of events emerged.

But for Aidan Fennessy, who was nine when his cousin died at aged 21, there was still much more to be said.

His long-anticipated new play, National Interest, which opened in Perth on 9 May, examines the impact of violent death on those left behind... In this case Tony's mother, June (played by Julia Blake) and his sister Jane (played by Michelle Fornasier).

But the play uses these real people as a departure point, rather than purporting to accurately represent them, says Fennessy.

In an interview with Victoria Laurie of the The Australian last month, he explains:

"When I asked the Stewart family what they would think about me doing this, I said: 'There's no way that I can tell your story. It won't fit into the format of the play, and I'm probably not good enough to do it.' So I just said: 'I'd like to use parts of it but I will make up your characters.'"

But why go there at all?

Why delve into painful and private grief through the medium of theatre?

"I think the play is really about me trying to examine what happens to a mother's story in light of the political and media narrative that has always sat alongside this story," says Fennessy.

According to the reviews to date, his efforts have not been misplaced.

The review in The Australian today says National Interest is "an ambitious play whose subdued staging and measured pace require concentration. Fennessy has written a great role for an actor of Blake's calibre, and choreographed a fine cast around her pivotal figure."

While over at The West Australian, David Zampatti's response is unambiguous:

"National Interest is by a great margin the most significant new play Black Swan has premiered in the Heath Ledger Theatre and the most complete, moving and satisfying production it has mounted on its stage."

National Interest runs until 20 May in Perth and open in Melbourne in June.


For PDF interviews with cast members Julia Blake, Michelle Fornasier and Polly Low, and Christina Smith (set and costume designer), have a look here on Black Swan State Theatre Company's website.


And here are some videos, with snippets from behind the scenes and Julia Blake and Aidan Fennessy in conversation...

Behind the scenes video with snippets of rehearsals and interviews with Aidan Fennessy, cast members James Bell, Stuart Halusz, Michelle Fornasier and Julia Blake. Plus, hear from sound designer/composer Ben Collins.

Writer and director Aidan Fennessy and actor Julia Blake talk about the production at the Melbourne Theatre Company 2012 launch.


Photograph: by Robert Smith for Black Swan State Theatre Company, showing Julia Blake as 'June.'



by Aidan Fennessy

The fate of the Balibo Five shocked Australia in 1975 and the ghosts of the past were awakened again during the coronial inquest in 2007. National Interest goes behind the headlines and international intrigue to give an authentic voice to the families left behind, those who survive tragedy but refuse to be defined by it, with a true story of a family still in the grip of grief.


 5—20 May 2012

Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA 

Click here for more information


6 June - 21 July 2012

Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre - VIC

Click here for more information

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