Arts & Entertainment

Dead Men Talking

By Mel Somerville.

Warren Fahey teams up with Max Cullen, in their show Dead Men Talking, a salute to Australia’s best-known poets, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson who have stood the test of time, both ending up on the $10 bill.

This is the show’s third season in Sydney and this time they are doing it differently, taking the show to non-traditional venues.

The lively one act show finds the two legendary literary figures having a casual drink at the Leviticus Bar & Grill, Heaven’s Gate, and yarning about their legacies.

Dead Men Talking is aimed at older Australians, people who know the impact of Paterson and Lawson on the Australian story. Fahey wants to remind Australians about their past and to get people excited about it.

“Through this performance people can discover their national identity. Without these stories about pioneering we wouldn’t really know who we are,” he said.

A historian will use all sorts of facts and figures but Dead Men Talking colours people’s imagination. Part of the stage show is picking the warts, it’s not all pretty, there is tension as they recreate the characters. But a bit of magic happens, and through the use of songs, stories and poems, signposts to Australian history.

Part of the thread of the discussion is how different the two characters were. They were poles apart socially.

Paterson (played by Fahey) had a fortunate life whereas Lawson’s (played by Cullen) was tragic. Today he would be diagnosed as bi-polar, intoxicated most of the time, a broken man, yet he put out an amazing catalogue of work that still stands up today. He had great success but never had any money. He’d go to pubs and write a poem on a drinking mat if you bought him a drink.

People assume Paterson was a bit of a “toss” because he was a successful lawyer. He’d had such success with Waltzing Matilda and The Man From Snowy River. When Lawson started to write as a young man he went to Paterson for legal advice, on how to deal with publishers. People thought they were enemies because they had the infamous War of Words in The Bulletin magazine where they made fun of each other and tried to trip each other up.

Dead Men Walking is a political piece, it’s hard not to look at a window of  the 19th and early 20th century without bringing in unionism, particularly the shearers strike of the 1890s. Lawson was a socialist and a republican. We know Paterson was supportive of unionism because his father had gone bust on the land twice so he had seen some hard times.

The show has brought people together, especially in the rural towns that have seen rough times; during the drought when there were more suicides.

“People who came said it’s been a long time since the town got together and had a laugh. We did a show on Flinders Island and half the town turned up,” said Fahey.

Although he’s never lived in the bush, Fahey has something of a relationship with it, having spent years there touring. He’s crossed the country, been to every corner.

“I am a city slicker, I am Paddington born and Paddington bred, strong in the arm and weak in the head,” said Fahey, borrowing a line of poetry from his father, who he interviewed when he was in his 80s for his oral history recordings, undertaken for the National Library.

Fahey’s career in Australiana and as a collector of folklore and history, began at 21 when he started doing book reviews for ABC radio. He went on to produce radio series, mainly on Australian history. That led to books about the bush, like Classic Bush Yarns, Australian music and our convicts and settlers. He’s a prolific author, having recently released his 30th book, he owned Folkways Music on Oxford Street Paddington for 20 years, started record label Larrikin Records and sings with folk band The Larrikins.

Distinguished actor Max Cullen’s film credits include The Great Gatsby (2013), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Australia (2008).

Dead Men Talking is being performed throughout Sydney in August.

Head to for times, venues & tickets.

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