Brisbane is the story of a city, but it’s also about a boy.
Queensland Theatre Company’s ambitious new production is a coming-of-age tale set in 1942.
The titular city, Brisbane, is a big country town in its adolescence, shaking in the shadow of the Bombing of Darwin.
Danny Fisher is a 14-year-old Brisbanite whose big brother, a pilot, was killed in that attack — the war took Danny’s innocence, just as it took Brisbane’s.
“I started with the story of a boy,” explains local playwright Matthew Ryan (of Boy Girl Wall, Kelly, and The Harbinger fame). “My grandfather served in World War II, so I knew a lot about that era, and about the trouble Australian soldiers had with the American soldiers stationed here. But it was when I had the story of a boy losing a brother, and the changes he goes through, and the changes the city goes through at the same time, that I really started to warm to the idea.”
After his older brother’s death, Danny Fisher finds a surrogate sibling in Andy, one of the Americans stationed in Brisbane at the time. Much of the conflict in the play is derived from the real-world tensions between the Yank and Aussie servicemen, which ultimately culminated in the Battle of Brisbane riots in November of 1942.
“A lot of the conflict was culture shock,” Ryan explains. “A lot of the conflict was to do with money. The Americans were paid a lot more than the Australians, and the Australians couldn’t afford what the Americans could afford. Even though they were fighting in the same battles, they weren’t getting the same benefits.
“A lot of it also had to do with the reaction of Brisbane women to the Americans. Suddenly, here were these men who were charming and chivalrous and quite seductive, and the women were actually able to be sexual and have a good time and not feel like they were doing something wrong. With the Australians, relationships were a little bit more old-fashioned and a little bit more, dare I say it, British, whereas the Americans had a bit more panache and a bit more flamboyance, which the women enjoyed very much.
“The animosity arose from the two ways of living, and it escalated from there.”
While Ryan’s other plays have all been warmly received both here and interstate, there’s no doubt that Brisbane is pitched at more of a mainstream audience than anything he’s written before. It’s a challenge he acknowledges and accepts.
“I do think this play has a very broad appeal and there are a lot of universal elements in the story that people will love,” he says. “It is a big stage event. It’s huge theatre with a huge set and a massive cast, and audiences are going to love it. I just have to multiply everything by a hundred in the way I do things, and then suddenly become very intimate in certain moments.
“I love talking with audiences who are not like me. That’s why I like the idea of big audiences, because you end up with a lot of people whose lives are not like yours, and you get to share that experience with them. When you write small, particular stuff, you get small, particular audiences.
“I love big movies, I love mainstream work, and I see a great deal of value in it, so I think this is me dipping a toe in that pool and having a go. We have a mythic story here, we have a great story here, we have a great big story to tell about our city. I believe very strongly in that.”
Brisbane plays at the QPAC Playhouse from 11 April to 2 May. For more information, visit queenslandtheatre.com.au.