Mystery and Romance for Australia Day: The Man They Call the Banjo

Who really wrote Waltzing Matilda?

Colin Driscoll as the Ghostly Swagman. Photo by Jim McAlinden
Colin Driscoll as the Ghostly Swagman. Photo by Jim McAlinden

What is the romantic secret behind the celebrated Australian song?

And how did the swagman really die?

The Man They Call the Banjo is a new musical play that dramatises the heartache and opens up the mysteries behind the song.

And, as Felix Meagher and the late Dennis O’Keeffe demonstrate, “Matilda” still holds a few surprises.

Composer Meagher and historian O’Keeffe collaborated on this production, which tells of a journey made by Banjo Paterson to outback Queensland during 1895. His fiancée Sarah Riley was the daughter of the owner of a station near Winton, and during Paterson’s visit, the couple visited the Macphersons’ nearby Dagworth Station. The shearing shed at Dagworth—like those on several other properties in the area—had been deliberately burned to the ground during the previous year’s Shearers’ Strike. Those fatal events were fresh in everyone’s mind—and everyone had a story to tell.

Sarah Riley had hoped that, after an eight-year engagement to Paterson, this Winton visit would provide an opportunity to announce their wedding date. But then Christina Macpherson sang “Craigielee” …

Melbourne actor/director Chris Saxton plays Banjo Paterson. Fleur Murphy, writer and actress originally from Mooroopna, is Christina Macpherson, while Cora Browne is Sarah Riley. Bush poet Colin Driscoll appears as the ghostly Swagman, stirring Paterson’s imagination—and his conscience. Meagher has the role of the Squatter, that is, Dagworth Station owner Robert Macpherson.

Ewen Baker and Lou Hesterman are musicians for the production. Classically trained Meagher has drawn on his love of folk music to write a score that creates a convincing sense of the time, place and emotional turbulence of these historical events.

The musical narrative is based on many people’s research into the controversial origins of “Waltzing Matilda”, but the real drama grows from of Dennis O’Keeffe’s ground-breaking investigations—published by Allen and Unwin—into the possibility of a love affair between Paterson and his fiancée’s friend Christina Macpherson. That story entwines with the violent Shearers’ Strike and the mysterious death of the swagman as the play explores the dilemmas faced by each of the characters.

“This is one of Australia’s great love stories,” says director Wolf Heidecker. “It is set in a time and a place when Australia was as close as it has ever been to civil war. It encompasses the raw emotion, the drama and the historical significance to make it a musical tale of interest to all ages and all walks of life.”

True to its roots, this production has toured to country venues that include shearing sheds and bush community venues. It was also seen at the Port Fairy Folk Festival, and this concert version will go into development as a fully fledged production in April.

“The response from the audiences we have performed for has been remarkable and at times overwhelming,” says Meagher. “It feels like they hang on every word, and once they get into the story, they appear to take ownership of it. It becomes their story!”

Over the Australia Day weekend, The Man They Call the Banjo will be presented at:

  • Mortlake, Friday January 23, Mortlake Memorial Hall, 7pm. Call Liz for tickets on 0418 299 644.
  • Cororooke (near Colac), Saturday January 24,
    Red Rock Regional Theatre and Gallery, 7:30pm. Bookings
  • Apollo Bay, Sunday January 25, Apollo Bay Bowls Club, 6:30pm Bookings

Matt Edwards

Matt is a past owner of AussieTheatre, working as digital director from 2011 to 2019. He is also a performer, most recently appeared in the Australian tour of Mamma Mia! and previously in the Australian/NZ tour of CATS and Enda Markey's acclaimed production of Blood Brothers. As well as performing Matt keeps himself busy in the digital side of the arts working with web design agency Emptyhead Digital

Matt Edwards

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