The delicate dance between racism and larrikinism in Australian society is explored in ‘Tequila Mockingbird’, a brand new Shake & Stir Theatre Co. production, inspired by Harper Lee’s literary classic.
“We never wanted to do a direct retelling of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird', we just wanted to give Australian audiences something relatable, that reflects the issues in our culture,” insists playwright and co-artistic director Nelle Lee.
Set in small town Australia, ‘Tequila Mockingbird’ tells the story of the racist underbelly that rears its ugly head after a young woman is attacked and the small community targets a young Indian contractor who has recently relocated to the area.
“Obviously it has similar themes to Harper Lee’s novel, but in essence it’s a brand new work … We have taken the key characters and themes and relocated them to a parallel world and set of circumstances that relate directly to us as modern Australians.”
Nelle knew that uncovering the clever disguises in which racism is downgraded and accepted in Australia would be challenging.
“The line between, ‘oh, we’re Aussies, it’s just fun, we’re taking the piss’ and racism is a delicate theme to tackle, but we’ve got a really great team on board with strong, intelligent opinions, and we thought that we could do it justice. It’s something that we are really passionate about.”
The cast features some of Queensland’s most experienced actors including Bryan Probets, Barbara Lowing and all three of shake & stir’s artistic directors, Ross Balbuziente, Nick Skubij and Nelle plus emerging actor Shannon Haegler (who is making his main stage debut with the company).
“It makes my life so easy the way everyone works together to give the play a spirit and a voice. Shannon’s fresh out of uni, and he’s so keen and intelligent. It’s such an ensemble feel which is fantastic.”
After the success of Shake&Stir's last two adaptations, the multi-award winning ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’, Nelle knew the company was ready to make a risky move with ‘Tequila Mockingbird’.
“You have to take risks in this industry, and it is really scary for us, because although this is a co-production with QPAC, we are an independent company who rely on box office sales to make sure we can continue to put on shows. That said, we can’t let that stop us from making bold choices.”
Re-appropriating such a beloved story is undoubtedly a brave choice. “Everyone’s got their favourite bits and themes and you realize you are never going to put everything in there that you need to … We know people are going to be waiting in the wings to go ‘Woah! This isn’t what it’s supposed to be’.”
Although, Nelle believes it will speak to today’s generation of students. “We can see what’s going to be engaging to young people and try and work that into our pieces … ‘Tequila Mockingbird’ does deal with some heavy themes, but its nothing that they are not going to have to deal with in life any way, and I think we are kidding ourselves if we think that kids don’t know that racial discrimination exists or partake in it themselves.”
Shake & Stir have interpreted the universal themes of prejudice, discrimination and the loss of innocence for a contemporary Australian audience and Nelle is proud of the work the company has produced. “We are artists and we are storytellers who are telling a story that we love. Yes, we are creating a new story that’s completely different unto itself, but that’s the beauty of art.
What is it supposed to be?”
'Tequila Mockingbird' is staged at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre, for a strictly limited season from Aug 21 – Sept 7.