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ARTS - Theatre, But Not As You Know It - Carlton Lamb Interview

Author: Philippa Wherrett
Tuesday, 13 May 2008
3D’s Philippa Wherrett speaks with writer/director Carlton Lamb about his latest project, Defiance, set – and performed – in a former quarantine station near manly.

As the cab drives me through the gate and past the old guard hut that mark the boundary between the old quarantine station at north head in Manly from the suburb surrounding it, I can’t help but feel the isolation of the place. It’s broad daylight but Q Station, as it’s now called, has atmosphere to it. This is not surprising, considering its history. People were quarantined here over a period of more than 180 years during the 1800s to keep diseases like smallpox, the plague and Spanish influenza from decimating Sydney. It’s these people’s stories, played out against the backdrop of where it all happened, that make Defiance a theatrical experience not to be repeated.

Writer/director Carlton Lamb’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious. His brief was to “capture the human experience of this place.

“It is a space that you walk into and the hackles rise up on the back of your neck sometimes,” he says. “Coming here at night you feel it. But that’s great. In theatre you try to create those experiences with lighting effects – but this space already has it.”

The space includes the original laundry, where the first act takes place, which is a heritage building, as are most buildings at Q Station, complete with the old steam machines and presses. Bringing the past to life is no easy task, but Carlton’s team have gone to great pains to create special effects that recreate the sound and feel of the machines at work. It gives me goosebumps.

The second act takes place in the hospital. The original building burnt down five years ago, but was rebuilt in the image of the old building. Here I take a peek at the rehearsals and a special effect projection of an apricot rose onto the back wall, which gradually unfurls into a circle of skipping children, hands clasped, singing Ring a Ring a Rosey. I sang the nursery rhyme as a child and had no idea it related to people the Spanish flu. It’s eerily effective.

“The gravest obstacle to mankind is disease,” Lamb says. “They’re awesome stories. These places have drama in spades. So if you’re in the business of telling stories about human life with the boring bits cut out, then this is a good place to start.” Definitely no boring bits here. Like the story of the nurse who tends the returned soldier, one of 2500 who returned from WWI with Spanish influenza. He recovers, but she falls ill. Close to death, the Irish Catholic nurse requested final rites. The soldier went into Manly to find a priest and returned with a bishop. But the guards at the gate would not let them pass. The nurse is buried in the graveyard on site. Her story and the soldier’s are just a few of those told in Defiance.

“To know that you’re sitting in the laundry and the character you’re hearing about is buried 100 metres away. That’s extraordinary,” Lamb says. Extraordinarily spooky too. Theatregoers will walk up a well-lit path from the laundry to the hospital, allowing audiences members to process the stories from the first act with the full benefit of Q Station’s atmosphere to flesh out the whole experience.

Defiance is sure to deliver a unique theatrical experience. The history and atmosphere of Q Station comes at no extra cost. It’s all part of the story of people who defied the odds when it came to some of last century’s most virulent diseases that killed hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Some survived their confinement in quarantine, others did not. Defiance is their story.

WHAT: Defiance
WHERE: Q Station, Manly
WHEN: Now, see website for more details