This verbatim play by Paul Brown is a moving tribute to some of the people affected by the Newcastle earthquake in 1989, which killed 13 people. Aftershocks centres on the Newcastle Workers’ Club, which was one of the worst affected sites and collapsed in the earthquake resulting in nine deaths.
I was fascinated to read about the process Brown went through to write the play: he was employed as a Writer in Residence by the Workers’ Cultural Action Committee, specifically so that he could write a verbatim play about the earthquake. Straight away this makes Aftershocks community theatre as well as verbatim theatre. Brown worked with a steering committee and research team and licensed the stories from the interviewees, giving them control of their own stories and a say over what happened to them and how they were represented.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster of you want to create theatre that will play anywhere outside the community it’s been written for, and yet Aftershocks is a powerful and moving play. It’s tempting to refer to it as having universal themes and to talk about the courage of ordinary people as they put their lives on the line to rescue their colleagues, but I think this is a very specific play about particular people who showed great courage and selflessness. And, yes, there are people who display courage in every disaster, but this story is so intimate and personal, that it is these particular individuals we need to stand up and cheer for at the end of the play and not the generic Aussie battler.
Being a verbatim piece means the individual voices are incredibly clear and distinct: they’re rough, unequivocally Australian and working class, and their observations are often surprising. When Bob comments that it was so dark “it was like being inside a cow”, you get an immediate, visceral image of the scene.
Some of the recollections of the moment of the earthquake are also incredibly vivid and striking.
LYN: Something’s falling off the roof. I get up from the desk, walk one step, and then the lights are out. One more step, and I see all the bricks come down … just at my doorway. And everything just keeps tumbling. The big unit, the air conditioning unit, comes off the roof … just sheers straight down in front, and everything just keeps on falling. I don’t scream. And as quick as it starts it stops. And I sort of stop, and look around. I know every inch of that club, but I can’t orientate myself. Just nothing left there. Just quietness, you know, really it’s just so still. Then the alarms and the screaming …
HOWARD: The walls were basically like flags in the wing, just flapping in the wind. Unbelievable that brick walls could do that […]
KERRY: The ceiling, it was … just like it was gradually crawling towards the bar the way it was coming down and … then the first thing I saw that did come away was the back wall … and that’s when the whole roof just kept coming and coming.
Aftershocks manages to be true to the stories of the particular survivors who were interviewed and also a dramatic and gripping play in its own right.
Publisher: Currency Press (1993)
Cast: Can be doubled with 3M, 3F or 7M, 9F without doubling.