People fall in love with theatre in many different ways. For Rashidi Edward it was a performance of The Crucible at Mt Gambier High School, where the Congolese actor was studying after arriving in Australia from Tanzania as a 17 year old.
“I didn’t know much about acting before that, to be honest,” he says. In fact, the word “acting” was not in his vocabulary but he was immediately hooked. After graduating, he decided to pursue his newfound passion for acting and found himself studying at Adelaide College of the Arts under director Corey McMahon.
McMahon recently launched Theatre Republic and has cast Edward in the company’s first production, LINES. It’s just the second run of the play which was first performed in the UK in 2015 and has been slightly rewritten to reflect the Australian vernacular – the characters are now significantly less likely to scream out “that’s bollocks!”
LINES follows the journey of four young men who all come from socially or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds – McMahon describes them as “characters who don’t always get a voice” and have joined the army looking for “some kind of meaning or identity or empowerment. Some of them are running away from something – you could probably argue that they’re all doing that – and they’re kind of flung together”.
That search for meaning is complicated by the fact that they are soldiers without a war to fight. The play is set in 2013 when Australia had just ceased active combat duties in Afghanistan.
Their search for identity as soldiers mirrors their attempts to define themselves as men and McMahon describes them as “not very good recruits”. This is not just a reference to the training that they undergo, but also their response to a hyper-masculine world that allows very little space for vulnerability, sensitivity and empathy.
Edward plays Valentine, a young African male who came to Australia with his mother. He’s confident and self-assured, like many of Edward’s on – stage personas, but knows that society views him in a very different way. “He’s seen as second class and he’s not happy about that. In a way he’s trying to break down society’s hierarchy and become successful in the army for his family.”
His fellow recruits have their own motivations for joining. Perk has serious trust issues but just wants to be one of the boys, Mackay is a joker who dreams of heroism and Locke has a secret but, like Valentine, joined the army as a stepping stone to a better life.
Each of them struggles with the demands placed on them, as well as the tedium of barracks life but they’re rarely static onstage. The production simulates cross country runs, rifle drills and night training exercises in a tough physical regime that required work with a specialist movement choreographer. For Edward it’s easily the most physically challenging work that he’s been a part of. “You have to be switched on every second, there’s no time to switch off. If you do that the scene leaves you behind so you have to be on top of everything at all times, physically and emotionally.”
On stage, the action unfolds in two ways – through the four recruits’ interactions with each other and through the monologues they deliver directly to the audience, revealing their inner thoughts. “They’re all very busy trying to play the role of the tough guy,” McMahon explains, “but then there are moments when they open up to the audience and give us access to these characters.”
He first encountered the work in the UK and organised a reading that included Edward on his return. That was two years ago and Theatre Republic was just an idea in the back of his mind. Both of them note that a lot has changed since then. As McMahon says, “when we first read the play a couple of years ago, we weren’t having the conversations that we are now. We’re all acutely aware that there’s not a lot of feminine energy in this room.” But he and the cast feel that it’s a work with the power to start important conversations about encouraging men to be vulnerable and to display empathy – to break the cycle of toxic masculinity that is at the heart of #MeToo. “Rather than acting in response to something women say, it’s important that men take ownership and really try to change things from within.”
Of course, as Edward points out “this play was actually written by a woman [Pamela Carter] who understands that we men are vulnerable, we just don’t always show it”.
Until Saturday, November 10