On the day I see The Bridge, at the Substation in Newport, there’s a State election in Victoria. I hadn’t planned it that way, but by election day, I’m glad to be seeing some theatre with its roots in the social realist Melbourne Workers Theatre, a (now-defunct) company that formed in Melbourne in 1987 out of solidarity with the working class and the trade union movement.
Fittingly, the show is presented by the Art & Industry Festival, at The Substation, an old electrical substation in Newport. The Bridge revisits the collapse of a span of the West Gate Bridge during construction in October 1970, an accident in which thirty-five workers died, and which remains, to date, Australia’s worst industrial accident. The play was written in 1990 by the late Vicki Reynolds, for Melbourne Workers Theatre, and was originally commissioned and directed by Donna Jackson, who directs the current production. The performers are (as in the original production) an ensemble of professional actors and community members.
The cavernous, high-ceilinged space of the Substation is utilised to great effect for this production when, at the show’s surprise opening, a captive audience is directed to look up from the foyer, to see scaffolding, on the 2nd floor mezzanine, swarming with workers in hard hats and regulation overalls. It’s a powerful opening – imaginatively echoing the drama of driving underneath the West Gate Bridge, and past the memorial park, as many of us Westies do regularly, on route to or from Williamstown.
Once we are seated upstairs, the scaffolding now cleverly forms the backdrop to the action of the play, allowing concurrent activity to take place on stage, with workers on the scaffolding representing the West Gate bridge worksite in the 1970s, in the background, and a family narrative, set in 1990, playing out around a kitchen and garage (under construction), in the foreground.
While her family plans a twenty-year reunion with friends who worked together on the bridge, a young woman, (Michelle, played by Lauren Bennett) tries to get her reluctant uncle (Jack, played by Gary Wall) and mother (Pat – Jane Bayly) to tell her their own experiences of the day her father died in the accident.
Early on, the play moves smoothly between impressionistic scenes from the bridge in the 1970s to the narrative unfolding in the 1990s. These two narratives merge when Pat finally opens up to talk about the day her husband died, and the action on stage becomes a flashback. Women run urgently on stage, arriving at the accident site, where they are blocked by safety barriers. Each of them waits, desperate for a sighting of her husband, father, brother, or son; Pat and her sister-in-law, Irene (Maud Davey) amongst them.
For the original production, Melbourne Workers Theatre interviewed workers, emergency personnel and locals from the surrounding community, about the accident and its aftermath. So, when the lights are lowered, and a procession of actors begins to quietly file onto the stage, each stopping in turn under a spotlight to speak directly to the audience about their experience of the accident, it is beyond me to be able to remain unmoved. A woman describes a policeman’s response as she tried frantically to enter the cordoned-off area, to find her husband. He pointed (to where the bridge had come down) and said something like, well if he’s not under the rubble, he’ll be around here somewhere. “I’ll always remember that,” says the woman, to us.
In this section, workers/speakers from various multicultural backgrounds deliver lines in their first language. When this is not English, no interpretation into English is provided to the audience, and this feels exactly as it should be: a refusal to compromise the reality of the multiple and varied experiences of the wide variety of Australians who were working on the bridge when it collapsed.
The Bridge explores more than just the accident at the bridge and its aftermath. The narrative of the family remembering these events ties it all together, and reminds us that political struggles continue, not only between workers and those willing to exploit them, but in families and communities, over issues like gender equality, conflicting values, and understanding between older and younger generations. Danny (Jan Mihal) persuasively presents us with a young man who is tired of his father’s (Jack, Gary Wall) insistence on politicising every worksite. He accuses Jack of having always prioritised political action at the workplace (striking), over the welfare of his family.
Lingering deeply with me after the show is the resonating image of a palette full of steel-capped work boots, carried on stage like a coffin. From it, the ensemble actors each take and place a pair of boots on the floor, until 35 pairs of boots are laid out across the stage, each representing a worker who died at the incident. While the boots are being laid out in front of us, one worker/speaker tells us he was asked to identify his co-workers, and that in many cases, they were identified by their boots, their remains being otherwise unidentifiable. In a moving culmination to the show, this symbolic, and ritualistic action of laying out the boots is repeated again while the names of the 35 victims are spoken.
The Art & Industry Festival, a biennial festival based in the West of Melbourne, aims to tell stories of (the western suburbs of Melbourne) both historical and current, through the combination of art and industry. I can’t think of a better coming together of those two things, than in this moving piece of political theatre about Australia’s worst industrial accident.