When a playwright frames a fictitious story in a current, local, real-world socio-political issue, the stakes are raised for both the presenter and the audience. In the case of Emily Steel’s original play Sepia, the environmentalists are the ones who come out of it with ink on their faces.
The play Sepia’s name is derived from the Latin name of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, Sepia apama. These animals have developed fame and notoriety in the last two decades for their mass breeding aggregations between Point Lowly and the town of Whyalla in South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf. In 2007, plans were announced by BHP Billiton to expand the Olympic Dam mine north of Roxby Downs. To satisfy the mine’s increasing thirst, a desalination plant was decided upon as their future primary water source. The desalination plant’s location, and the return of its waste brine back into the waters off Point Lowly were approved by the South Australian State Government and Australian Federal Government in October of 2011. The play was in development at the time, and that event provides the starting block for the fictitious story of Neil, Emma and Matty.
A little background… the short video below from Naturescope introduces the Giant Australian Cuttlefish and some of their vulnerabilities.
Playwright Steel and director Nescha Jelk establish the audience’s perception of Neil, the play’s central character, before the lights even raise. He sits in his Whyalla home wearing snorkelling gear, in the murky waters of depression after the October Government approvals. Projected video cuttlefish swim by behind him, and when his mouth opens, the portrait of a fool is rapidly coloured.
As the play commences, it is clear that Neil’s passion for protecting the cuttlefish governs his actions. Despite his imposed utility as the ‘fool’, no laugh-out-loud comedy ensues. He is a tragic figure, who has failed threefold: in running a business, keeping his family together, and protecting the cuttlefish from industrial development. Neil is a former Company man, who broke from the fold to invest in the promise of a burgeoning tourism industry in Whyalla. Now he is wallowing in the rotten fruits of his labours.
Presented in RiAus’ unspectacular basement, the play viewed like a draft rather than a finished work. The relationship between the dreamer Neil (Rory Walker) and his conservative wife Emma (Holly Myers) was improbable- devoid of chemistry, and addled with condescension and resentment. Ultimately the pragmatic, conservative voice of Emma resounded as the voice of reason. The one who took a job in accounts, and left Neil and his ideals behind. Was this evidence of the writer’s own prejudice, a representation of her perception of the Australian majority, or was it a creative defence mechanism, an over-compensation against any possible accusation of siding with environmentalists?
Politically, the scope of this work was frustratingly narrow. The writer isolated the desalination plant from the wider impacts of the Olympic Dam mine expansion, and the mining boom which lies beyond it. A single description of the mine becoming ‘the biggest uranium mine in the world’ threatened to open another juicy can of worms, but shied away from the challenge. There was no mention of community action, grass-roots activism or public protest. Whyalla was portrayed true to the Adelaide-centric stereotype, as a BHP company town with a steelworks and a future desalination plant. The State Government’s agenda to heavily industrialise the Point Lowly peninsula with an explosives factory, diesel storage, new refineries and an expanded port facility right through the cuttlefish’s breeding reef was strangely absent. By isolating the issue of the desalination plant and hinging the play on it post-approval, the play creates the impression that we will all have to ‘wait and see’ what happens next. In reality, the desalination plant’s operation is 7-10 years away in BHP Billiton’s timeline, and proposals for Port Bonython expansion and other industrial developments are stacking up around it now. There are clear and present opportunities for public opinion to influence the cuttlefish’s future, and to discourage action by accident or design, is unhelpful to those fighting for their cause.
Dramatically, the play was at times painful to watch. The director failed to induce the ebb and flow of pace and emotional intensity the script desperately required to maintain interest, resulting in performances which ambled along monotonously. Over-acting was another major problem. Despite the furthest extremities of the audience being less than five metres from the players, Neil and Matt’s (Matthew Gregan) performances were large enough to be seen from an upstairs gallery.
Sepia is essentially a domestic drama, with a few factoids, crude stereotypes and a conservative bias thrown in for spice. Yes, it takes a real world issue, but it simplifies it, freezes it in time and cooly skates over the surface. Once upon a time, playwrights represented threats to the establishment, presenting radical, progressive ideas and challenging the status quo. If that is the brand of theatre that you yearn for, you won’t find it in Sepia.
For a more detailed study of the issues touched upon by Sepia, visit Cuttlefish Country.