“I was like, ‘Oh god, how’s that going to work?’” she recalls. “It’s been a really exciting project for me because what we’ve managed to do is take the horrors in the story and make that relevant to today. Some of the lines of questioning about Australian culture and particularly male culture are still really relevant. And I guess in a little bit of a way we kind of broke it as well,” she says, pausing to laugh before adding, “which is always fun.”
Newman was not without her concerns about single-handedly taking on a story that has so embedded itself into the national psyche, with screen adaptations including Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s famously divisive 1971 cult movie and a 2017 television miniseries.
“Initially I had apprehensions about, you know, I’m an immigrant female doing a classic Australian text about Australians,” says Newman, who was born in Jamaica before moving to Brisbane at age 14. “But getting somebody who is female and an immigrant to talk about male culture in Australia throws a different lens on it.”
Newman found parallels between herself and Grant being seen as outsiders. Almost 60 years after it was first published, the story still gave rich insights into the dichotomies of Australian culture, especially in terms of how Australia presents itself as an open-armed, multicultural country versus the expectations placed on immigrants to assimilate and the border policy on asylum seekers.
“The protagonist is somebody who’s not from this town and gets ‘welcomed’ into the town,” says Newman. “There is a generosity about how he is treated, but everything is conditional. There are things that he has to give up and things that he has to adopt. And if he doesn’t do that, then he doesn’t belong.
“That is a very strong metaphor for certainly some of my experiences in Australia. Things like benevolence and fairness and being a good bloke, those are narratives that are sold as defining features of what it means to be an Australian and inside of the novel and our show that stuff is blown apart and exposed. There are a lot of contradictions in those narratives.”
Wake in Fright is at Sydney Opera House from February 11-15.