Theatre Works' Explosives Factory

Devastating bushfires and a baby koala and miner in peril. These are just two of the interwoven threads that run through the excellent, interactive solo work KOAL, in which sound, music and lighting play a critically important role. The piece was conceived by performer Jacinta Yelland. In 2019, she was sitting in her living room in the United States, overcome by grief and feeling “utterly useless” as her homeland, Australia, was devastated by bushfires.

Photos by Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios and HanJie Chow

KOAL is a story about home and the environment. It concerns knowledge, history and community, plants, animals and the land. As someone who doesn’t read background material before seeing any show, hence wanting it to be self-explanatory, this is what I took from the production.

It starts with a young Indigenous girl awakening to the delightful sights and sounds of the Australian bush. She is Minah, who enjoys her freedom and the native flora and fauna until the unconscionable happens.   The character was inspired by the journey of Yelland’s maternal grandmother. Very soon it becomes evident though that a bushfire is approaching, one that imperils flora and fauna. Among those at risk is a baby koala named Koal and residents who must flee.

At the same time, a diligent, long-term miner named Stevo is on his last day at work. Having gone underground to check oxygen and methane levels, he is trapped and injured in a mine collapse. Also in play is wildlife officer Curtis, whose job is an educative one. Kindly and humorous, she breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to us – the audience – posing questions and providing answers. That includes a fun fact about the nutritious benefits of koala poo to its young, which also has a physical manifestation as part of the play.

KOAL is a highly creative, fascinating and compelling piece, unlike anything I have seen. It is physical and evocative, engaging and entertaining. Yelland is a superb storyteller. The first thing that “hit me” when I entered Theatre Works’ Explosives Factory was the stunning and stimulating centrepiece of the set, designed by Payton Smith. It took the form of a tent-like A-frame, being an eight-foot ladder covered in paper bags and foliage, completed with a traditional snake weave from the Torres Strait Islands (being a nod to Yelland’s heritage). It looked fantastic, having been crafted to represent a bushland setting.

As the offering develops, we also get to see smaller iterations of the same. In her various guises, time and again artiste Jacinta Yelland navigates her way through the bush. For all intents and purposes morphing into a baby koala, complete with marsupial ears and nose, as Koal she crawls around the undergrowth and through the trees. She eats eucalyptus leaves, twitches and makes sounds like a real koala.

As Stevo, self-assured and professional, with torch, lantern and measuring device in hand, she takes a lift down the mine shaft. She remains stoic, even when caught under a pile of rubble, but as the hours tick by and rescuers haven’t come, Stevo is desperate to get out alive and get home. The wildlife officer is, dare I say it, bright eyed and bushy tailed – a real enthusiast. But Curtis’ concern grows markedly when the bushfire he originally thinks won’t affect us does.

Yelland also assumes the persona of a strict teacher, who at one point “brings Minah into line” with white man thinking at the time. In short, Yelland’s stagecraft throughout is intoxicating. She has collaborated with director and fellow creator Trey Lyford to bring KOAL to the stage, having received the Philadelphia Fringe Festival Five Star Award for it.

As mentioned, the sound and lighting are critical to its success. I felt like I was literally transported into the bush. The noises have been so well captured. Original music and sound design are by her husband, Ethan Mentzer, with Lyford responsible for additional sound design. Barbaric Yawp Workshop were the mask makers and Grace Lillian Lee the costume consultant, earthy tones predominating.

In short, the preview of KOAL I saw was superbly crafted and featured an utterly enchanting performance by Jacinta Yelland, who I highly commend. It is on at Theatre Works’ Explosives Factory until 1st June, 2024.

Alex First

Alex First

Alex First believes all people have a story to tell, if only a good playwright can prize it out of them. Alex has a natural curiosity about the world and believes a strong narrative, or narrative with music, can open the door to subjects about which he knows little. Like his parents before him, theatre is his passion – a passion with emotional resonance, one that moves and excites him. He brings decades’ experience as an arts’ connoisseur to his role as a critic.
Scroll to Top