Here in Australia it would appear we have little in the way of life-threatening danger: we don’t live in a time of war or famine, and it’s been almost two decades since the country experienced the sort of mass shooting that’s become a regular occurrence in the US. Instead, it’s our landscape that can so easily turn against us. Whether it be bushfires or floods, mother nature has a way of regularly reminding us how fragile our lives are.
Our fraught relationship with the land each bushfire season is examined in writer/performer Wayne Tunks latest work, Flame Trees.
Tunks subverts the stereotype of the male, socially ostracised firebug in the form of his protagonist of sorts, Tess.
Tess left her small country town in the back of a police wagon after confessing to starting a bushfire that devastated the area and killed her best friend. Back in town, she’s greeted by an understandably frosty reaction – particularly from her ex-boyfriend and his new fiancé.
“Bushfires are a quintessential Australian story; we battle with them every season. The question I wanted to examine was why somebody would actually start a fire. We hear that so many of them are deliberately lit, and I wanted to delve into that and explore that story,” Tunks told the Star Observer.
But it seems there’s one obstacle facing any playwright who decides to use a convicted firebug as their main character: likeability.
“When I see theatre, I need characters to identify with and characters to like. What happens when your main character has done something reprehensible? It’s a big challenge for the play, and for the audience. Audience members can come and decide for themselves by the end if they like Tess or if they don’t.”
Tunks himself plays a supporting role in Flame Trees, as Tess’s mentally disabled brother, Nathan. He admitted that in itself was proving a challenge.
“You want to find an honesty with his innocence, rather than moving into stereotypes,” he said.
“It’s a tough role to get right.”
Flame Trees is directed by Tunks’ regular collaborator, Perri Cummings, and stars stage veteran Sally McLean alongside newcomers Hannah Gott and Matthew Candeland. Another actor – one who should be a familiar face to queer audiences – makes his theatrical debut in the play: James Mason (pictured left), best known for his portrayal of gay teen Chris Pappas in Neighbours. Tunks struck up a friendship with the young actor while working as a storyliner on the enduring show.
Tunks is garnering a name for himself as a remarkably prolific playwright – his most recent work, the sexual thriller Fag Boy and the Married Man, played at La Mama a little over a month ago. With no gay themes or characters to be found in Flame Trees, Tunks said he sometimes struggled against the ‘gay playwright’ tag.
“I enjoy writing gay characters, telling gay stories and celebrating queer culture. But at the same time, I’m a writer and I don’t think my sexuality matters. But then I want it to matter. It’s a constant battle,” he chuckled.
INFO: Flame Trees, Theatre Works, March 7-16 • www.theatreworks.org.au