In 1860, Irish-born explorer William O’Hara Burke led an ill-fated expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Basin Theatre’s production of Burke’s Company by Bill Reed brings the Burke and Wills story to life by showing not only the plight of Burke and Wills, but also the consequences of the choices made by those who were supposed to meet them.
The Basin Theatre is a lovely little venue located in The Basin near the Dandenongs. The Australian native plants seen driving to the theatre definitely help set the scene. Graham Fly and Gary Bott, both of whom also make cameo roles in the play, have taken a simplistic approach to their set design yet have managed to transform the stage into an outback stockade effectively, facilitated by the warm lighting designed by Natalia McKinna. Perhaps unnecessary, however, is a series of landscape photographs that are projected to the side of the stage. Whilst the images do help viewers discern the location of the scene taking place, the transitions between different images did tend to be somewhat clunky on the night of the review, with location images jarringly changing mid-scene at points.
A soundscape by Fly and Daniel Koster also adds to the feel of the show, with both ambient noises played during scenes and musical interludes playing during transition. It seemed, however, that the ambient noises weren’t used as frequently in the second act which did not make the play feel as much like a cohesive whole as it could have.
The play’s story is told in a non-linear fashion, which, to someone unfamiliar with the Burke and Wills story, may seem slightly confusing at first. The play switches between the characters’ conversations together, internal monologues and the written statements of the Cooper’s Creek Party that were supposed to meet Burke and Wills’ party. The actors all truly look as if they’ve been wandering the outback for months, thanks to detailed costumes by Eileen Ervine, Graham Fly and Natalie McKinna and makeup by Tamara Hill. It is clear that the cast are putting their all into deciphering the difficult, often meaty content of the script. Whilst some performances lack the nuance needed to portray the tougher scenes, the cast work well together to encapsulate the endlessness of the Australian desert and futility of Burke and co.’s journey to Mount Hopeless.
A standout is Matt Phillips as King, Burke’s youngest party member. A voice of hope on the journey, Phillips delivers the most nuanced performance of the cast and did well to convey his character’s journey and progression. Kudos should also be given to Robert Trott who stepped into the role of Wright a week before the play’s opening. With script in hand, Trott made a valiant effort to decipher the difficult material of his scene whilst still reading the dialogue off the page, acting alongside Zane Kelly as the conflicted Brahe. It would be interesting to see what could be done with this scene after Trott has had the chance to become more comfortable in his role and get off-book.
Graham Fry’s direction was effective in dialogue scenes; however the biggest problem the play experienced was its pacing issues. The play, much like Burke’s journey, felt long with several audience members becoming restless before the end of the first act. Whilst the slow pace did definitely help to convey the endlessness and hopelessness of the journey, more rise and fall in the pacing of the scenes could be useful to still convey the same themes, but also keep the play moving. Some actors also appeared stuck playing a ‘mood’, although this might be fixed should the pace be picked up.
Burke’s Company tells a familiar tale from a new angle. If you have an interest in Australian history and supporting local works, make sure you see the show before it closes. Just be sure to bring some water so you don’t feel as though you’re literally along for the ride.
Written by Chloe Towan for Good Vibes Melbourne