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A tale of two cultures: Queensland Theatre co-production ignites hope

Culture

A new stage work that blends traditional Torres Strait Island storytelling with Western theatre has been announced as one of seven new Australian stage productions to be commissioned by Playwriting Australia (PWA) as part of the organisation’s Ignition program for 2020.

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MUDSKIPPER: A New Mythology, by Queensland playwrights Walter Waia and John Harvey, will be developed as a co-commission between Queensland Theatre and PWA and was the only Queensland-based project to be commissioned under the Ignition program.

“It was really exciting when we got the call saying that PWA was going support this project,” Queensland Theatre artistic director Lee Lewis told InQueensland.

“To have artists of the calibre Walter Waia and John Harvey partnering with the company for the creation of this, it’s really lovely to be looking forward to something.”

MUDSKIPPER is described as a mythological tale that traverses love, loss and longing for home, a convergence of ancient and contemporary, and an exploration of love and its ability to reach across two worlds.

It tells the complex story of a devoted husband and wife, trapped in laborious, repetitive work in a world desperately low on water, 60 days away from “Day Zero”, when all the world’s water reserves will be depleted. As Day Zero draws closer, restrictions are tightened and the government/coloniser takes more control of the couple’s lives.

When the husband becomes ill, he begins speaking the now-forbidden language, Kala Lagaw Ya (from Saibai Island in the Torres Strait) and refers to himself as a “muddy person” with an insatiable need to drink and be immersed in water.

As the story progresses, the husband appears to be metamorphosing into another form – a mudskipper – and his growing need for water exceeds their daily rations, leading his wife to risk imprisonment by stealing water from the laundromat in which she works.

As her husband’s health deteriorates, the wife begins a race against time to seek out the “muddy place” he refers to, with the play aiming to speak to the interconnectedness of all things, both physical and spiritual.

Harvey described MUDSKIPPER as “where the ongoing cultural wisdom of our people meets both ancient and futures thinking”.

“At a time when many of us are reflecting on our lives and how we live them, MUDSKIPPER offers a unique storytelling experience,” he said. “What an honour it is to make theatre like this with such a highly regarded cultural man, and storyteller, Walter Waia.”

Lewis said she was “inspired by the hope that’s inside the story” Waia and Harvey wanted to tell.

Queensland Theatre artistic director Lee Lewis.

“It’s a hopeful story within a difficult world and it’s a real gift to be able to help create a story like that in this time,” she said.

Lewis said there was no deadline for when MUDSKIPPER would make its way to the stage but she was grateful Queensland Theatre was on board to be able to invest in the start of the creative process.

“Part of my job is to protect artists from that push it towards ‘the now’,” she said. “I would say at least 18 months – I would be surprised if it’s sooner but sometimes artists do surprise you.

“There is no recipe for the development of new works, you’ve really got to work with the artists and see what they need to get this story to a place where they want it to be on a stage, and the biggest thing is to not push something too fast because it’s a terrible shame when something is pushed on too quickly and a great story is wasted.

“The work will end up on the stage and the story you see there will definitely bear some resemblance to what it does in the synopsis but that’s also the magic of making work for the stage – things transform.

“They’ve got a great starting point and they’ve got great collaborators and we’ll see where they see where we get to but it’s lovely to be imagining forward into a place beyond the COVID worries.”

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