Hope in the Howling: A techno-affective analysis of Wake in Fright
Contemporary Gothic theatre practitioners in Australia are obsessed by the invisible and the intangible and are constantly seeking to cultivate an experience in the spectator which is dependent on stretching the imagination to the full. I argue that this drive to stretch the imagination is fertile ground for significant theatrical innovation, as was the case with the game-changing Malthouse production of Wake in Fright (2019). Through the casting of Zahra Newman, an immigrant woman of colour and the deployment of sound as protagonist as well as conjurer, the work usurped the masculine energy and blokedom of the original narrative, offering new ways of engaging the Gothic and exciting challenges to the Gothic’s more traditional use as a colonial framing device.
Taking a techno-affective approach and drawing on interviews with the work’s sound designer, director and performer/co-creator, this paper analyses the sonic strategies at play, particularly the use of disparate tactics to simultaneously generate unsettling affects (states of trauma, shock, claustrophobia and fear), and the drive to immerse the audience in soundscapes that conjure disquieting psychological states.
As Denise Varney notes, Wake in Fright eviscerated the novel’s dominant male voices (2019). I analyse the strategies used to achieve this gutting, arguing that new sound technologies and sonic experiments, when paired with the inspired casting of Newman, shift the focus away from traditional framings of the Australian landscape as haunted and instead focus on the toxicity and xenophobia inherent in certain ideas of Aussie mateship. The casting of Zahra Newman and the prioritisation of sound enabled the work to turn up the volume and roar of change and in doing so, the work offered a transformation of the Gothic from its colonial roots towards a postcolonial and transnational manifestation.
Miles O’Neil is a theatre-maker, musician, actor and a lecturer in art and performance at Deakin University. With a PhD from the University of Melbourne, Miles has expertise in contemporary art theory, practice led research, Gothic studies and sound-led performance studies. As a founding member of multi award-winning performance group and band the Suitcase Royale, Miles has been presented in the Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Darwin, and Dark Mofo arts festivals in Australia and internationally in multiple arts festivals in the UK, Ireland, Germany, USA, Canada and New Zealand.