The words ‘police state’ aren’t what I’d associate with 1970s Australia, but that probably says more about me and the vast gulf of unknowing between the UK and the country we anachronistically share a queen with. Prehistoric is set in a Brisbane where the police have pretty much unchecked powers to combat protest, and to stamp down on the nascent punk scene. Radical history is easy to sentimentalise and tint pink, but this show is furious and flame-coloured. Uncomfortable, prickly, awkward. Just as its narrative sucks you in on a jangling guitar high, it switches the neon lights back up and the actors dismantle the world they’ve built.
The basic outline of Marcel Dorney’s story is a classic starting-a-band narrative. Four young people are bored and angry as their families and neighbours celebrate the queen’s Silver Jubilee. A couple of years later and they’re at a meet-up organised by anthropology student Rachel, who’s hand picked them to be in a band with her and issued a set of ritualistically complex instructions to get to her house. Played by Grace Cummings, Rachel goes on to make a fearsome frontwoman, her voice filling Summerhall’s round, echoing anatomy theatre.
She’s joined by the adorably keen Nick, who’s drawn to chaotic Pete – Sahil Saluja and Zacher Pidd have a convincingly awkward chemistry as two maybe-gay guys. Their relationship is mirrored in Rachel’s obvious crush on Deb: Brigid Gallacher plays a science technician who volunteers at a co-operatively run activist space, even as her job comes under threat.
So far, so queer. But in one of the many moments where the cast step out of the story and address the audience, Dorney has them explain that this story isn’t about adorable happy endings – or ‘feels’, as he very millennially puts it. Instead, it’s about a ‘prehistoric’ cultural moment, in a pre-internet, pre-accountability society that was conspiring to crush nonconformity and rebellion. I wonder, slightly, if Prehistoric is trying to have its cake and eat it. It feels a bit perverse to bring so much queer tension into being and then to berate the audience for wanting it to come to something – and the punishment meted out on gender non-conforming Pete feels especially brutal.
But then, Australia’s laws against homosexuality were repealed late – between 1976 and 1990, with a dishonourable exception for Tasmania (1996) – and this violently burst bubble is a tiny echo of the thousands of love affairs that were crushed, and people whose lives were bent painfully into a socially-acceptable shape. Prehistoric’s rumbling sense of nihilism and chaos is in the service of something quite rare. It’s trying to write something that’s not just set in the past, but trying to think itself into the past, and trying to understand the ways that different social conditions four decades ago made people think and feel and love differently. What lingers of punk in 21st century consciousness has been queered and softened, its values shifted towards veganism, utopianism and acceptance – values that Dorney’s framing device acknowledges, and clashes up against a narrative that shows why punk was essential. A protest against every aspect of society, not just a good time.
Prehistoric feels a bit like half a play. It’s exploring more in an hour than whole TV series attempt – police violence, radical spaces, colonial legacies, class divides in the punk movement, and why people keep on living in repressive societies. And it’s doing so in a naturalistic way, through conversations that are half-formed and painfully real. I’d like to watch a three hour version, but it is the Edinburgh fringe. Your/my attention span probably can’t take that. And like a classic three-minute punk song, Prehistoric is a rich, furious, jangling moment that leaves you wanting more.
Prehistoric is on at Summerhall until 26th August, as part of the 2018 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.