Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre

on certainty, loss, simplicity and thylacines

Melbourne Fringe Part The Third: Justine Campbell and Sarah Hamiliton’s They saw a Thylacine. Again, artists and audience members, please feel free to comment. 

Artists working without an outside director, it can be so difficult to know if you are hitting your mark. To create alone is to be Alice on her long fall down the rabbit hole with no way of keeping time or knowing how far you have come and at some point you begin to wonder if you will fall right through the centre of the earth and come out the other side, where people walk upside down. Will you even understand each other or will you be too alien for comprehension and spend your life the wrong way up, watching feet traipse past your muddled head? Too dramatic? I just mean that making art without an outside ‘director/observer’ makes it fucking hard to keep perspective. It is easy to mistrust yourself but writer/performers Justine Campbell and Sarah Hamiliton seem to work with complete creative certainty. They appear to know they have created something beautiful and unique that needs no augmentation, no flashy blocking or extravaganza. I felt their faith. From the instant I stepped into their performance space, I knew I was in good hands; that they had a story worth telling and knew how to tell it. This confidence is so rare in a new work.


They saw a Thylacine is entirely in verse: tense, muscular verse, visceral and Australian, taught and toothy, powered by the rage of the two narrators. These are the final days an exquisite native species and the first days of a new one: an independent female Australian voice. The two stories – of a tracker determined to capture a live beast and the zookeeper of the last captive thylacine – are told from inside a single cage. The audience enters to circus music as the two women, acutely aware of their spectators, eat oranges messily – animalistically – until the juice runs down their arms. Thus, from those first moments, a link is forged in our minds between these women and the animals they watch. They are the side-show and ring-masters all in one. Endangered species.


There were forty seconds of They saw a Thylacine that I didn’t love – that I didn’t spend on the edge of my seat, trying not to breath too loudly incase I broke the spell. Every other second I was so actively loving it that my face was frozen into a manic grin! Those forty seconds for the final forty in which the performers dropped their characters and recited a list of endangered Australian animals and posed the question ‘what’s next’. In telling me what it was for and what moral conclusion to reach, my personal experience and interpretation of their stories seemed minimized. Disregarded. It felt like the most simplistic way to reflect on what had been a beautifully complex and multifaceted hour of completely engrossing storytelling. I knew the death of the thylacine was a tragedy – a preventable one – but I took so much more than these entwined voices.


I am so grateful for this work. The last time I saw this duo create together (A donkey and a parrot, written and performed by Hamilton and directed by Campbell) their skill was evident but the outcome was so busy with completing ideas, images and techniques, that the beautiful words became lost. I longed for them to strip back their aesthetic and trust their story and this is exactly what they have done with They saw a Thylacine. This is a mature work. An elegant work. A work of great depth, subtle urgency and quiet strength. A work that deserves a long life.

Couldn’t resist a soundtrack. Also, I am very excited.  A beautiful writer and theatre-maker, Bridget Mackey is going to guest blog a bit later today. She has written a stunning response to Stone’s The Cherry Orchard that deserves to be read. I’m so excited to share it and make Bridget the first of my guest bloggers. Stay tuned. 


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