By Leah PurcellDramaCurrency Press/Belvoir in association with Oombarra Productions

The Drover’s Wife

Tarantino meets Deadwood in this full-throttle drama of our colonial past, written by the indomitable Leah Purcell.

Henry Lawson’s story of the drover’s wife pits the stoic silhouette of a woman against the unforgiving Australian landscape, staring down a serpent – it’s our frontier myth captured in a few pages. In Leah’s new play the old story gets a very fresh rewrite. Once again the drover’s wife is confronted by a threat in her yard in Australia’s high country, but now it’s a man. He’s bleeding, he’s got secrets, and he’s black. She knows there’s a fugitive wanted for killing whites, and the district is thick with troopers, but something’s holding the drover’s wife back from turning this fella in …

A taut thriller of our pioneering past, The Drover’s Wife is full of fury, power and has a black sting to the tail, reaching from our nation’s infancy into our complicated present.

Portrait of Leah Purcell

Leah Purcell

Leah Purcell is an internationally acclaimed director, writer and actor. In 2016, she was the start-up director on the hit 7 Network/Screentime series, The Secret Daughter. In 2015, Leah directed episodes of Goalpost Picture/Pukeko’s Cleverman which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, aired locally on the ABC and on the Sundance Channel in the US. She is currently directing the follow up series, Cleverman 2.

Her play, The Drover’s Wife (in which she also played the title role), was a part of Belvoir Theatre’s 2016 season. Leah is currently developing a film based on the play and an original screenplay, Moxie Girls, with the support of Screen Australia. Leah’s theatre directing credits include Brothers Wreck (Belvoir Theatre), Don’t Take Your Love to Town, a play she also co-devised and starred in (Belvoir Theatre), Stolen (ACPA), Actor on a Box – Dreaming and Theatre In Practice – Stolen (Sydney Theatre Company Theatre in Education), The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table (QPAC), 7 Stages of Grieving (Sydney Theatre Company), Reflections: 40 Years and to the Future (ACPA/QPAC) and Howie The Rookie (Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts).

In 1997, Leah co-wrote Box the Pony which was the smash hit of the 1997 Festival of the Dreaming and has played to sell-out seasons at the Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney Opera House, the 1999 Edinburgh Festival and the Barbican Theatre in London. The published text of the play won the 1999 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2000 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Play.

Leah was a script consultant on Love Child series two and three for Playmaker Media.

Judges’ report

This re-imagining of a classic Australian short story explodes out of the blocks with a moment of stark brutality and never lets up. The homestead-bound battler of Henry Lawson's famous short story is here expanded to a figure whose tragedy speaks to both the universal and the specific, while the layered and carefully calculated writing converses with multiple other texts and forms including the titular story, white Australia’s telling of colonisation, modes and genres including the Western, horror, comedy and thriller.

This is playwriting that acknowledges and exploits the conventions of theatrical drama, without being beholden to them. Relentless in its trajectory, neither characters nor audiences are let off the hook as the piece drives towards two heinous acts of violence, and then beyond them, into the beginnings of something other. The Drover’s Wife subverts, re-inspects and interrogates our histories through powerful storytelling.

Extract

Scene Two

Early morning just before dawn (day one).
Finally, YADAKA appears, blood all over his hands and shirt. Exhausted,
he lowers himself to the ground and sleeps.

The day passes to mid-afternoon.

DROVER’S WIFE comes out carrying her gun, goes to him aiming it straight at him.
YADAKA stirs awake, clocks the gun. Slowly he sits himself up, still in pain from his wound. He shifts the collar around his neck.

Beat.

DROVER’S WIFE: You saved my life.
YADAKA: I’m not here to take it.

Beat.

Sorry for ya loss, missus.

DROVER’S WIFE: It’s the way of life out here. Everything’s a gamble.

Beat.

What were ya tendin’ to do with me axe?
YADAKA: Take the collar off. Try to.

DROVER’S WIFE: You was facin’ toward me house.
YADAKA: Food.
DROVER’S WIFE: Puttin’ ya’self in danger.
YADAKA: Need food, missus. Been runnin’ for days, carryin’ this.

His indicates to his wound.

Heard ya comin’. Laid down, there. Couldn’t run now more.
Hopin’ ya wouldn’t shoot.

DROVER’S WIFE: Knowin’ I was alone.

He looks away, guilty.

You need to— [go]

YADAKA: Bury that little girl. Least I can do for ya.

DROVER’S WIFE: You owe me nothin’.

YADAKA: It’s the proper thing to do.

DROVER’S WIFE: Should do it soon, I’m sure that swagman is on his way
     to town.

YADAKA: He would be, if he was a decent man.

DROVER’S WIFE: He was likin’ his chances with a reward. Two days and
       troopers could be here.

YADAKA: He’s limpin’, maybe a little longer.

DROVER’S WIFE: Maybe they’re already on their way.

YADAKA: How far is the Hossnaggle’s from here?

DROVER’S WIFE: Other side of the range. A day’s ride if you know the
        country, longer if ya don’t.
         Works in your favour.

Beat.

Guilty man asks a lot of questions.

YADAKA: Black man asks a lot of questions. No trial for me, missus. DROVER’S WIFE: Ya say ya innocent.

YADAKA: Doesn’t matter to them.

Beat.

DROVER’S WIFE: Clean ya’self up.

YADAKA: Should I bury her first then?

DROVER’S WIFE: No. Give me some time with her. Say goodbye.
YADAKA: That’s good, missus. Proper thing to do.

YADAKA goes to the water barrel to clean himself up with a rag.

DROVER’S WIFE: It was an old gin that told me that. ‘Don’t be afraid to
    cry hard for ya dead.’

Beat.

     They haven’t come back through here in years.

YADAKA: Fences are up, harder to cross country, and whites can shoot
      on sight.

DROVER’S WIFE: It is ya lucky day then.
          Different story if my Joe was here.
YADAKA: Sure of it.

Awkward silence.

Same skin.

DROVER’S WIFE: Pardon?

YADAKA: That old woman you talk of, same mob. Same skin.
DROVER’S WIFE: I’d say she was darker than ya.

YADAKA: I mean, family way. I know whose country this is. Who can do
     business on it. My adopted clan, Ngambri Walgalu.

DROVER’S WIFE: Meanin’?
YADAKA: I was adopted in. I’m not from here. North. I’m heading home.
     Tryin’ to. I was left in Melbourne.
DROVER’S WIFE: Melbourne?
YADAKA: I ran away with a circus.

She chuckles to herself.
 
DROVER’S WIFE: Now you havin’ a lend of me.
YADAKA: No, I did.
     South African circus, ‘Fillis Circus’. I was good with the horses and
  bears.
       They did their show down the coast, startin’ in my homeland of the
    Guugu Yimithirr, rainforest country.
        I calmed a bear in rough seas. I was good with the children that
     came to watch.
DROVER’S WIFE: I’ve never seen the sea, or a circus for that matter.
       Closest thing to a circus we get is Market Day in town. Big fanfare
    durin’ the day and the drunken clowns come out at night!
YADAKA: I was with the circus for, two years. They left me then, des ...
       des-tit—

DROVER’S WIFE: Destitute.

YADAKA: That was my rst arrest. Destitute.

In prison, dead for; cold, no clothes and a man of God, Father
  Matthews, helped me.
       Got me out, clothed me, gave me a white name, I don’t use it.
       He took me to a mission, west ... taught me to read, write and play
  the tuba.
      
         DROVER’S WIFE impressed on hearing about the tuba.

 But bein’ there, listenin’ to Father Matthews’ stories about his God
   wasn’t gettin’ me closer to my homeland though.
       I went then. Slipped away into the shadows, missus. Went on my
   own walkabout.
       Followin’ the range; The Great Dividin’. It goes right up into my    
    homelands in Queensland.

DROVER’S WIFE: Long way. My Joe done some drovin’ up there.
YADAKA: Takin’ the mountain range, I ran into other mobs, see.
           I came to the Snowy Mountains with them for the big Bogong moth,
      Uriarra ... to eat and ... dance and ...
DROVER’S WIFE: Like a celebration.

YADAKA: Yes. Then one night I saw this beautiful woman ... her skin
       oiled with the Bogong moth fat, shining like a full moon ... and when
      she danced ... smooth like shallow runnin’ water over river rocks ...

               DROVER’S WIFE becomes a little uncomfortable with his talk. He
            sees this but continues on:

       I had to be adopted to be right skin for her. To join with her. So, I
        was adopted into the Ngambri Walgalu. Settled in with them.
DROVER’S WIFE: When was all this?

YADAKA: My journey started with the circus two years after my ... how
        do I say it ... becomin’ a man, goin’ through ... what’s the word ... DROVER’S WIFE: Like a ceremony?

YADAKA: Yes, manhood ceremony. Same age as your oldest son there,
      I’d say.

DROVER’S WIFE: He not long had a birthday. Three months back.
         So ... you would’ve been a young fella when you joined the circus?

           He nods.
DROVER’S WIFE: And you’ve been tryin’ to get home ever since?
YADAKA: Yes.
DROVER’S WIFE: Well, I won’t be keepin’ ya. We bury that girl—
YADAKA: Time to heal, missus. I’ll fell a tree for ya. That deadwood be
       gone before you know it. Level that ground out there. Stack the heap
        for ya too.

DROVER’S WIFE: Trust no-one with the stackin’ of my woodheap though.
         Got a blackfella to do it once before, the bastard stacked it hollow
    and a snake got in! Made that night a livin’ hell.
         It made its way inside. Had to put all my children up on the kitchen
     table out of harm’s way. All night I sat watchin’, waitin’ for that bas-
     tard snake to come out.
           Eventually it did. I went to whack it, but my dog got in the way,
       took the blow on his nose.

She looks around.

       [Calling] Alligator? Alligator! Bloody dog, gettin’ old. Tough old bas-          
       tard though.
            He caught that snake, shook it silly, snapped its back.

             An awkward silence; she’s surprised at the ease of conversation
            between them.

       Enough of this trap appin’. I’ll x us a bite to eat. Get ya a clean
        shirt. Throw that one in the re.
             Ya settle ya’self around back. Best ya stay out of sight.

     Thanks for helpin’ with the swaggy.

     Cross me and I’ll kill ya. I’ll shoot ya where ya stand and bury ya    
       where ya fall.

YADAKA: Yes Boss.

DROVER’S WIFE: He’s the boss. I’m the drover’s wife.

YADAKA: I’m Yadaka of the Guugu Yimithirr, adopted Ngambri Walgalu.

           He offers his hand. She doesn’t shake it.

DROVER’S WIFE: Mrs Joe Johnson.

    She indicates for him to leave. He exits.
   
She watches him go. She exits inside.
   
Mid-afternoon becomes later afternoon (of day one).

 

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