Union Songs


Article by Mark Gregory (January 2004)

Katherine ThomsonIn its world premiere at the magnificent new Sydney Theatre, Katherine Thomson's play Harbour delighted a packed house.

The play is set in the 1998 "Patrick Dispute", a combined government/employer union busting operation. In revisiting the historic lockout and sacking of an entire waterside workforce, members of the MUA, the play conjures up the drama of the events; the secret training of ex-army personnel in Dubai, the midnight takeover of the wharves by balaclava clad guards with guns and dogs, the shelf companies that had secretly been created to take over the employment of the wharfies and enable bankrupcy without loss of assets, the National Farmers Federation training of scabs bankrolled by the employer and government, it's all there. Also in this witty and moving play are the court cases that helped expose the whole scam to the delight of the public at the time.

Harbour is centred around a wharfie family, Vi and Sandy and the children. Sandy comes home after six years to a very wary family, his wife doesn't want to know him and his children - a photojournalist daughter, a daughter who works at the stock exchange, one son who's a musician and another who's a reluctant union organiser - have grown up and appear to have no use for what they remember of his politics. Katherine Thomson told theatre writer Jo Liston " I really admired Jimmy McGovern's (1999 television film) Dockers, which is about a dispute that drives a family apart, and I thought 'wouldn't it be interesting to have a dispute that brings a family together in the same way that this dispute did, to some degree, bring factions together as people rallied around a sense that core values were being eroded'."

One of the achievements of Harbour's exploration of family is to provide a timely contrast to the Howard government attempts to appear "family friendly" while intentionally setting out to destroy community and workplace culture.

The play also looks at the other side of the dispute, the scabs. Two very different characters desperate for work and seizing what appears to them a once in a lifetime opportunity. Again we are made aware what relationships and family mean to them. One of them, Jack the ex-SAS soldier, has become a kind of mercenary for those who want to smash the MUA. He also wheels and deals in sectet tape recordings and documents, looking for the highest bidder on any side of the dispute.

Katherine Thomson told journalist Lyndall Crisp "For every play, I've probably done hundreds and hundreds of interviews. There comes a moment when you have to stop. There's probably not a line in any of my plays that's verbatim of what someone said. I just find things out, listen to people's rhythm ... I went through archives, found wharfies to talk to and interviewed people in Millers Point. I went along to where the elderly ate lunch at the community centre and just stood at the front and said: 'If anyone would like to talk to me ...'".

An exceptional play about a an extraordinary dispute, Harbour adds to the cultural work that seems to have surrounded the wharfies and seamen of the MUA for a number for generations. The "Patrick Dispute" saw an unprecedented community support for the union against a scheming and lying government, support that ended the career of a minister and helped decimate the government majority at the last election. Perhaps that explains why in the five years since the dispute there have been four books, a CD, an exhibition of paintings and two plays about the MUA!

Sydney TheatreHarbour is directed by Robyn Nevin and the brilliant ensemble cast is: Mitchell Butel, Peter Carroll, Tamsin Carroll, Helen Dallimore, Drew Forsythe, Simon Gleeson, Melissa Jaffer, Genevieve Lemon, Christopher Pitman, William Zappa.

Harbour Closes: 5pm Sunday 22 February
Duration: 2 hrs 40 mins including interval
Bookings: 9250 1777
Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay

Return to top of page