By Aidan FennessyDrama
Aidan Fennessy’s cousin, Tony Stewart, died in the East Timorese town of Balibo in 1975, alongside two reporters and two cameramen. He was one of the Balibo Five, the journalists whose murders have become nationally infamous as casualties of the war in East Timor – and of a ruthless Indonesian government.
‘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,’ Fennessy says, explaining that the work ‘telescopes’ between the national and the personal.
The main characters are Tony Stewart’s mother and her daughter, as they each deal with his loss – and the government’s obfuscation of the truth – in their own way. Fennessy says the characters are ‘avatars’ of his real-life aunt and cousin. The political element – the story of the Balibo Five and the role and response of the Australian and Indonesian governments – is told in such a way that it lets in those unfamiliar with events, as well as audiences who know the story well.
Signs are held up at various points throughout – ‘fiction’, ‘fact’ and conjecture’ – reflecting the way the story has been told, and the ways in which what really happened to Tony Stewart and his companions can still only be guessed at.
National Interest captures a significant moment in recent Australian history through a heightened and impressive dramatic narrative. Aidan Fennessy expertly weaves factual source material – media coverage, speeches, court transcripts, etc. – into a deeply personal story powered by grief and resentment. The result is a critical portrait of war, diplomacy, political and cultural conceits, and the lives they entrap. Fennessy’s deft and vivid script demonstrates unusual control and creativity in fashioning our unfinished, contemporary history as a living theatre.
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The killings were intended to silence the messengers, in order that no word should reach the outside world about Indonesia’s plans to invade East Timor.
The Australian, 2012
Aidan Fennessy’s National Interest is a powerful script. The first read made me weep. And so did the second. I grinned with glee, however, at its treasure of two strong roles for women over 40.
Fennessy sets himself a tall order with this play: negotiating the intimacy of a family’s grief with an exploration of memory (and what it means to forget, and never to forget) and telling an overtly political story of international war crimes.
June: Look at this mess.
Writer and theatre critic Alison Croggon tells us, ‘Writing a play requires … a precise sense of the spatial dynamics of a stage, a musical intuition for the rhythms of spoken language, a certain fondness for the necessary vulgarities and strict limitations of theatre.’ And it is this imagination for writing for the theatre that lifts National Interest away from the potential trap of didactic proselytising (however justified that would be).
The play uses the ‘fourth wall’ … A trim woman in her seventies is sitting at her dining room table with a bouquet of flowers laid out in front of her. It’s the aftermath of a family gathering in memorial of the passing of June’s husband: Tony Stewart’s father. Jane has screwed her courage to the sticking point in order to have a difficult conversation with her mother.
Jane: I love you mum.
June: Wow… ‘I love you mum’. Forget the tea.
Do I need brandy for this?
The awkward broaching of June’s failing memory, her aging, is a forerunner of the overarching sadness of the piece – the loss of Tony, who was murdered at twenty-one and will never grow old. The ‘ghosts’ of Tony, Gary and Greg inhabit June’s world and Fennessy has utilised a non-naturalistic theatre language to layer various levels of ‘reality’ and emotion into this contemporary Australian play. We get a sense of the fearlessness of young men, the excitement and humanity of their ‘call to duty’ – to support the Timorese (generous allies of Australians as guerrilla soldiers and providers of knowledge, food and shelter during World War II) – and the exhilaration of ‘real journalism’.
But Jane has more on her mind than her mother’s health. The family want the coronial inquiry – and to travel to Balibo, for healing. But for June, there seems no possibility of closure.
Jane: … Don’t you want to see justice done?
June: Don’t be so naïve. This is not about the apportioning of blame. Was the Australian Government at the time complicit? Yes! Was every subsequent Australian government engaged in an active cover up? Yes! Was it the Indonesian military who murdered them? Yes. Was it the Javanese elite who told them to do it? Yes Yes Yes. Do I need another enquiry to help me understand this? No.
Jane: Don’t you want justice?
June: Tell me what it means and I’ll answer the question.
In a series of monologues that build and break like waves, each with its own crescendo, detail of the political facts is revealed. A heartbreaking conversation between Gary, Greg and Tony follows; they’re ready to fly into their adventure.
All the elements combine to make National Interest shrewd, visual, provocative and moving: its dialogue peppered with humour and pathos, the music, the structure weaving realism with non-naturalism. Then there’s the actors – playing multiple roles in shifting timeframes, telling multi-layered stories – and the device of FICTION, FACT and CONJECTURE variously projected on the upstage wall.
June: Look at this mess.
Clare is also a director and ‘occasional actor’, and creator of Literary Rats.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist