Battlers Take a Bow

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That harbor," sighs an old wharfie in Katherine Thomson's new play for the Sydney Theatre Company. 'She dances some days. Like she's trying to jump out of her skin." Indeed, no other Australian city seems to shed its skin - or grow a new one - as readily as Sydney. After all, it's the place where an historic wharf can turn into luxury apartments for the likes of Russell Crowe. And where an old bond store in former working-class Millers Point can transform into a chic theater for the middle classes - the new Sydney Theatre, where Thomson's Harbour premiered this month.

Long celebrated by satirist David Williamson as a makeover metropolis consumed with change (Emerald City, Up for Grabs), Sydney also harbors a pluckier spirit; its citizens can hunker down, when fired by a sense of injustice, and fight. That's the message of two new plays strutting the Sydney stage, both inspired by recent public events. 'When people get together," says Harbour's retired wharfie Sandy (Peter Carroll), 'they can give each other the courage to dance through the flames."

In this case, it was the fight waged on Australia's waterfront when, in 1998, Patrick Stevedores and the Federal Government sought to take down the picketing Maritime Union of Australia. A secret workforce was trained in Dubai, and security guards in balaclavas moved in with Rottweilers to take over Australia's docks (the waterside workers later won their case in court). Across town, at the Belvoir Street Theatre, another late-'90s battle is being restaged. 'An ant is small," says one of the footy fans of Alana Valentine's Run Rabbit Run, 'but if you get enough ants in a bed, they'll drive a man crazy." In this case, the man was Rupert Murdoch, and the ants were members of the South Sydney Rugby League Club, the Rabbitohs, which Murdoch sought to sacrifice in his pared-down Super League and quest for pay-TV supremacy.

Both Rabbit and Harbour look at events from the grassroots up: at how a cynical distrust of politicians and big business can be harnessed into people power instead of hatred. And both - written and directed by women - suggest that the real battles were not fought in the male domains of football fields or the waterfront but in the home. Certainly Harbour is more interested in how an industrial dispute can divide a family than in its effect on a country. Having fled his wife Vi (Melissa Jaffer) six years before, Sandy returns to Millers Point to find a changed order: son Matt (Christopher Pitman) is a union reformer who speaks of peaceful assemblies and containment, not pickets and work stoppages; commodity trader daughter Belle (Helen Dallimore) sleeps with one of the men who calls in the dockland dogs.

The family of Valentine's play is more symbolic. It includes not only high-profile Souths saviors like then-chairman George Piggins and solicitor Nick Pappas, but blind barracker Roger Harvey and mother and daughter Barbara Selby and Marcia Seebacher - just some of the 40 or so characters evoked by this skilful cast of 10. If you think Rabbit sounds like an episode of Australian Story on stage, you're not mistaken: Valentine has taken the dialogue from transcripts on the public record. But the cleverly constructed play, directed by Kate Gaul, comes off as a community's cry for self-esteem, not a critique of pay-TV or rugby league.

In comparison, Harbour often seems stilted. While Stephen Curtis's set evokes Sydney's watery darkness, Thomson's writing only skims the dockyard drama. Humor is to be found in the substory of scab worker Craig (Mitchell Butel), but for all its talk about a defining moment in history, Harbour lacks focus - unlike Rabbit, which never takes its eye off the ball. 'It's a thread that goes through your life," supporter Mark Courtney says of the Rabbitoh tradition. Flaunting the red of the Catholic church and the green of the club founders' Irish homeland, it's a play that dares to show its true colors.