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Love, power and Chinese-Australian relations


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The themes in Australian writer Sue Smith’s new political play were pulled sharply into focus by Senator Jacqui Lambie’s recent controversial comments about the threat of a Chinese invasion.

Smith – the writer of TV dramas including Mabo, Bastard Boys and Brides of Christ – created Kryptonite to explore the changed, complex and sometimes thorny relationship between Australia and China.

Underlying the dynamic, she believes, is Australians’ innate fear of their Asian neighbour.

“I think it goes right back to the ‘yellow peril’ fear [of the gold-rush days],” she tells InDaily ahead of Kryptonite’s official opening at the Adelaide Festival Centre tomorrow.

“But I also think that you’re aware of it in the public discourse, because although public figures talk very carefully about China, it is not a democracy, so in dealing with Chinese companies there’s an awareness that they are usually backed at some level by the state.

“A lot of people are nervous about it … I suspect it’s not entirely reasonable, but fear is never rational.”

Kryptonite – a co-production of the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, directed by State Theatre’s Geordie Brookman – was written well before Lambie and Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer cause a stir with their much-reported comments about China-Australia relations.

Smith became interested in the issue a number of years ago as she witnessed what she describes as the “immense geopolitical shift” which saw China become this country’s key trading partner, while America remained its main cultural and defence partner. She also wrote a play about the mining boom, Strange Attractor, in 2009.

In Kryptonite, the issues are crystallised through the relationship of Dylan, a carefree young Australian, and Lian, an introverted Chinese exchange student, who meet at a Sydney university and establish a friendship that lasts 25 years.

For Dylan (played by Tim Walter), Lian (Ursula Mills) provides a vision of what it’s like to care passionately about something; for Lian, Dylan represents a secure, relaxed and comfortable life.

“When you’re young, certain people can have a very profound influence on you,” Smith says.

“They can kind of shape your view of the world and galvanise you through a different path through life. That’s what I wanted to suggest with these two characters – the influence they have on each other shapes their trajectory.”

Lian is in Australia during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the Chinese authorities turned tanks and machine guns on thousands of student protesters. The fact that she and Dylan share this shocking experience galvanises their early relationship, with the events having a profound impact on them.

Twenty-five years later, however, Dylan is a Greens politician and Lian is a high-powered mining executive in China – so, as Smith says, “inevitably things are going to get murky”. The personal and political begin to blur, leading to what the production notes describe as shocking consequences.

While the characters are fictional, Smith says that interviewing politicians during her television writing career helped her shape Dylan. Two particular people who came to mind were former Greens leader Bob Brown and scientist Tim Flannery – “who is not a politician but could easily have been”.

Her sister-in-law Janet, who is from China and has lived in Australia since 1996, helped her create Lian and also joined in workshops with the actors.

“She told me basically her entire life history,” Smith says. “We talked about her world view and her view of Australia, what it was like to be here when she was very new here, the challenges she faced … what she thinks about China now.

“I could not have written the play without her.”

While the overriding themes of Kryptonite are anything but light, Smith says the play is also very funny in parts, especially early scenes in which the young Dylan and Lian are struggling to understand each other.

“This is a testament to Geordie and the actors. Obviously I wrote them, but when I wrote them I didn’t realise how funny they would be on stage,” says Smith, who also worked with the State Theatre Company last year on the production of her play The Kreutzer Sonata, presented at the 2013 Adelaide Festival.

Ultimately, she hopes audiences will find her latest work both entertaining and moving.

“Also, [I hope it furthers] an awareness of the way in which lives are led in the shadow of history … no one, but some people more than others, can ever really escape their history. And when it is cataclysmic history, like the events in China in 1989, it really just shapes your whole life.”

Kryptonite is playing at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until November 9.

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