Down Under take on underworld

Angela Betzien’s latest offering is a coming-of-age tale that draws on mythology and aspects of the history of Cork, says Colette Sheridan

Down Under take on underworld

Angela Betzien’s Where in the World is Frank Sparrow? premieres at Cork’s Graffiti Theatre from Oct 8-25.

Betzien is a leading Australian writer for teenagers, and her play, a coming-of-age tale aimed at school audiences, was specially commissioned by Graffiti. There will also be public performances of the work at the Blackpool venue from Oct 18-19.

Where in the World is Frank Sparrow? is described as having “a quirky graphic novel style” that “weaves stark urban reality with the mythic underworld of the dead”. The play’s hero faces danger and trials, overcomes his weaknesses, finds romance and faces death.

Betzien, whose many awards include an Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Theatre for Young Audiences, says that the play “borrows some of the motifs from Romeo and Juliet. It’s a kind of contemporary Romeo and Juliet with lots of twists.”

To research the play, Betzien spent time in Cork, driving around and chatting to Graffiti’s artistic director, Emelie Fitzgibbon. “At a very early stage, we knew the play was going to draw on mythology and aspects of the history of Cork. We talked about the fact that Cork is built on a marsh and that there had been flooding. I got interested in the changeling myth and the idea of there being two worlds, the above world and an underground world. I was told about the gangland wars between families over territory and drugs. That’s something that is familiar to me because it’s happening in Australia as well. I thought it would be interesting to draw on that for the play.”

The play is set in a place called Shadow City. A child is found in a farmer’s field. The farmer is called Mr Sparrow. A member of the public finds the child and takes it to a police station. Nobody claims this abandoned newborn child. He is adopted and raised in Shadow City and is called Frank Sparrow.

“He is not quite like everybody else,” explains Betzien. “He hates being trapped inside. He likes to roam and doesn’t like to follow rules. This means he gets into a lot of trouble with the law. When we meet Frank, he is appearing in court on some serious charges. Refusing to be trapped, he continues to break the rules. Everything snowballs. He finds himself in a gangland war in Shadow City chased by two gangs, the Souths and the Kellys. A crow and a fox have come up from the underworld to find Frank and bring him back because, essentially, he belongs below.”

The play, says Betzien, isn’t strictly an educational play. “I’m very much an advocate of work that speaks on a number of levels while tapping into the educational curriculum with its themes and ideas. It’s a play that taps into ideas of social identity and relationships as well as the politics of space, territory and belonging. The parents are not the focus of the piece. It’s very much a world where we see the lives of the teenage characters.”

On a stylistic level, the play is written in “a kind of heightened organic rhyme. It taps into a rich language.” Set on a scaffold, it’s a very physical show. “By the end of it, the actors are really sweating. They’re up and down the scaffolding. It feels very dangerous and exciting but it’s not actually dangerous. The cast of five (who play multiple characters) manipulate the set. There are flying and running sequences that are very much what I envisaged when I wrote it.”

The raw looking set includes a number of television sets through which the audience can see the underworld. “The underworld is really just the flipside of the “above” world. It’s about the balance between the two worlds. I’m tapping into ideas about climate change and too much development which is causing fundamental problems to the environment, wildlife and the cycles of life and death.”

The play comes with teacher resource packs which focus on myth and legend, the hero’s coming of age, two young people finding their place in the world, gang violence, difference and acceptance.

Betzien, who is based in Melbourne in Australia, says theatre for young people is “a really vibrant scene in Australia. When I was an emerging writer, I found that writing for young people was the best way to maximise my audience. I then found it to be the most exciting kind of work. While I don’t write exclusively for young audiences, I find it incredibly interesting because young people have not necessarily formed all their ideas about the world. They’re open to innovation and to different ways of telling stories and looking at the world. I find I can’t be a lazy writer. I know when there’s a slump in interest.”

Despite the competing forces of social media and the internet, Betzien says young people are receptive to theatre as long as it “triggers their imagination. It can surpass other media and that’s why I’m so committed to it.”

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