Back to the theatre! Yipee!! But not quite as I remember it so fondly.

For the Ros Packer Theatre in Sydney’s Rocks is a big place and normally packed out with chattering theatre-goers. But, with only between 5 and 8 people sitting in each 30-seat row, numbers of anonymously-masked theatre-goers were depressingly down. Brave of the Sydney Theatre Company to carry on. Pity their Covid Marshalls have such dauntingly large black facemasks!

Despite which, just about all my fellow thespians couldn’t resist taking masked selfies to prove that they too were back in the theatre.

And brave, too, of the two-person, somewhat Godotesque cast to face this echoing space to present a play almost entirely dependent on their verbalising skills to keep us engaged. For they variously talk to each other, comment in independent monologues, repeat each other, and go round in verbal circles. Occasionally, simple, elevated phrases such as A day of such things take the breath away.

Wonnangatta‘ is a 90 minute drama based on real events in 1918 when both the manager and his off-sider at the remote Victorian Alpine sheep station of that name were found dead. The mystery has never been solved “ but, I suspect that playwright Angus Cerini has his own theory. Mind you, he’s pretty oblique in the way he suggests it (twice) “ and I’m not going to deny your detective capacities by revealing all here!

I will reveal, though, that, because of the casting of the excellent Indigenous director/writer/actor Wayne Blair in this production, I had assumed he was playing an Aboriginal character. Not so. His Riggall and Hugo Weaving’s Harry Smith are both rough stockmen of that era with no hint in the script that either would, surprisingly, not be white. But, handling the rapid-fire dialogue as they have to, often without even facing each other but looking out into the High Plains distance, is a big ask. I suspect the show will develop further during October. But currently, Weaving is more an older man than an authentic bushy “ though he is clearly the boss of this expedition, mostly manipulating Blair’s accommodating helpmate at will.

Why are they there on this remotest of pastoral outstations?

Smith is a regular visitor, bringing supplies and mail, and on his previous monthly visit he’s found nobody, just a chalked message, Back later. A month later, there’s still nobody, just a starving dog, Barron (whom Weaving imcanineites later), who eventually leads them to a white rock that turns out to be the missing manager Jim Barclay’s skull, sticking out of a shallow grave.

Cerini’s strength is understanding of relationships between men “ revealed earlier, too, in his Helpmann Award-winning play, ‘The Bleeding Tree’. His language “ as it needs to be in this sparse production played on Jacob Nash’s single curved wooden hillock set “ is vigorous and poetic. And his descriptive powers of country he clearly knows well conjures the granite and mighty mountain ash trees splendidly. He’s aided before the play starts by bird-calls and sounds of night insects, though, oddly, the opportunity to conjure the dingo howls referred to when the guys conclude that Jim’s head must have been eaten off by the wild dogs is resisted.

Decisions are lead by Smith. And he is instantly convinced that the killing must have been done by side-kick Banfield “ a man so low, I wouldn’t give that man steam off my shit. An imagined confrontation between Smith and Banfield settles Riggall’s doubts. Pursuit will require them to head up on to the snowy High Plains, over precipitous mountain passes through trackless bush. We experience it all viscerally.

But Banfield, too, is discovered dead; and final, furious confirmation of his guilt for Smith, the dead man is wearing Jim’s best suit. Quite why this leads both men to utter the formerly-absent dingo howls, I’m not quite sure. But it wrapped up an intense experience.