The Drover's Wife

Rachel King
26th Sep 2016

Leah Purcell is a brave woman. Very few people would be courageous enough to write a play based on short story, let alone one that was first published in 1892. But Purcell has managed to turn The Drover’s Wife written by Henry Lawson into a confronting production that remains true to its bush roots yet reflects modern opinions of colonial times – plus she stars in the lead role.

Henry Lawson’s tale was about a woman on a remote property who protected her children from a deadly snake. Purcell’s spin sees the woman dealing with all sorts of dangerous characters from a swagman to a pair of stockmen, but it is her encounter with Yadaka, an aboriginal man on the run from the law, that puts her life in peril in more ways than one.

Race, gender, family, community and death are just some of the themes that are tackled in the at times graphic play. Colonial times were harsh for everybody but when you factor in remoteness, law and order challenges and the belief white men had of their superiority over everyone, then people were bound to suffer. Purcell highlights these inequalities without becoming too preachy, drawing parallels with the issues that are still apparent in society today. Her play makes you reflect on Australia’s history and consider how far we have come in many ways, yet there is still room for improvement.

Under Leticia Cáceres’ direction, Leah Purcell’s portrayal of the hardy Drover’s Wife (Molly) is fierce in the face of adversity, but vulnerable. The two women handle the confronting violence without hesitation but don’t make it too grotesque for audiences to handle. Many of the things that are depicted aren’t generally featured in many theatre productions, but it is all done very well. Mark Coles Smith’s Yadaka is a balance between being a strong aboriginal man and knowing when he should and shouldn’t stand up for himself and others. He is captivating on stage and tackles the complexities of his character with finesse. Young actor Will McDonald is mostly endearing as Molly’s son Danny. Childish exuberance and naivety are used to help shield him from the harshness of his reality but the teen is wiser than his mother realises, McDonald’s ability to juggle these traits is to be commended. The rest of the cast perform multiple roles that help drive the narrative but are merely supporting players.

A brave production in many ways, The Drover’s Wife is to be commended for its indigenous elements while not rewriting history to make any side all good or all bad. Just be warned that some scenes will make you physically recoil in shock or horror. Overall though, it’s probably one of the most truthful portrayals of frontier life you’re likely to see on stage. 

The Drover's Wife is on at Belvoir St. Theatre until Sunday October 16th. Production photos by Brett Boardman.

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25 Belvoir Street
Surry Hills
+61 2 9699 3444