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In the National Interest (by Gemma Varone)

In the National Interest (by Gemma Varone)

More than 75 women from the WA media industry gathered at the spectacular State Theatre Centre to learn more about arts in WA and to enjoy the world premiere of Aiden Fennessy’s play about the Balibo Five, National Interest.

The May 8 event was the first Women in Media night to include a play as well as the trademark drinks and nibbles and the chance to meet with other women in the industry.

Arts writer and Women in Media committee member Victoria Laurie introduced the evening and made a plea for more journalists to report on the vibrant arts community in Perth and for the state and federal governments to increase funding to WA arts.

“A capital city without creativity is a dead one,” Laurie said.

She said theatre in WA received far less government funding than cities in the eastern states.

Laurie introduced Black Swan State Theatre Company artistic director Kate Cherry who explained that she had commissioned playwright Aidan Fennessy to tell the story of the five journalists killed in East Timor from the perspective of the journalists’ families.

“I was very moved by what happened at Balibo,” Cherry said. “Two of my collaborators in Melbourne have also lost family members that were journalists.”

After witnessing the passion of Shirley Shackleton, the widow of Greg Shackleton who was also killed in Balibo, Kate’s vision was for the play to be from the women’s point of view.

“It is very powerful to watch Shirley and her family members keep the story alive,” she said.

Cherry, who worked in Melbourne before coming to Perth, is positive about theatre in Western Australia.

“There is a unique freedom in WA, a willingness for people to let you take chances and artists really think outside the box,” she said.

Cherry said Black Swan’s main aim was to create work about Australians, by Australian people.

“Telling stories about our country is at the heart of what we do,” she said.

National Interest is, she said, ‘the perfect piece’.

The story of the Balibo Five has become well known after almost 37 years of media coverage as well as through books, films and documentaries.

A group of five journalists from Channel Seven and Channel Nine went to Portugese Timor to report on the civil conflict that was unfolding to make it real for Australians sitting at home in their living rooms.

They were killed during Indonesian incursions prior to the invasion that killed more that 100,000 East Timorese.

The Indonesian government claimed the men were killed as a result of cross-fire, however a 2007 coronial inquest found this to be a lie. The five men were deliberately murdered by the Indonesian military.

For award-winning playwright and director Aidan Fennessy, this incident hits very close to home. His cousin Tony Stewart, a sound recordist for Channel Seven, at 21, was the youngest of the Balibo Five.

Following four years of work, Fennessy’s play National Interest has made it to the stage. The co-production between Black Swan and Melbourne Theatre Company stars renowned Australian actress Julia Blake as June Stewart.

Although June’s character shares the same name as Tony’s mother and Aidan’s aunt, she is a completely fictitious character, created for the stage.

There was barely an empty seat as the WIM group took their seats in the Heath Ledger Theatre, which was only opened at the beginning of last year. At the end of the play, the cast returned to the stage twice before the applause subdued.

Fennessy was pleased with the performance as well as with how the audience received it.

“Tonight was the first time I’ve seen the play from the front of the audience, and it was a very different experience,” he said.

National Interest is playing until May 20 and is part of Black Swan’s coming of age as they celebrate their 21st anniversary season.