“Are we a Country who listens?”
by Rosalind Moran
Billed by The Street Theatre as ‘a narrative song cycle about Australian genius’, Flight Memory is no ordinary play. It explores the work of David Warren, inventor of the ‘black box’ flight recorder, through experimental jazz accompanied by an astute critique of Australia’s relationship with innovation. It’s a rare treat: how often are such obscure, potentially risky theatrical concepts offered a place on the stage?
With its distinctive style and unique narrative, it is perhaps unsurprising that Flight Memory was commissioned by The Street Theatre and directed by its CEO and Artistic Director, Caroline Stacey. I’m often impressed by the plays put on by The Street Theatre – they are typically clever, challenging, and engrossing. It’s exciting when theatre pushes boundaries and conventions surrounding what a play can or should be, meaning The Street Theatre’s appetite for innovation is valuable as well as inspiring.
A strength of the play is its subject matter. Flight Memory chronicles the motivations, struggles, and bittersweet triumph of Australian scientist David Warren in his journey to invent the black box flight recorder and bring it to the world. Following the loss of his father in an air crash when he was a child, Warren grew up to work as a research scientist and was notably involved in the accident investigations related to the mysterious crash of the Comet, the world’s first jet-powered commercial aircraft. Warren recognised how useful a recording from the aircraft pre-crash would have been. Consequently, he set about developing an electronic recording device and pushing for it to be trialled in aircraft – knowing it could well save lives.
What lends this story particular urgency is the fact Warren’s efforts to get his invention off the ground were repeatedly rebuffed. As articulated by the three-person cast, who sang the play’s storyline as well as the voices and thoughts of Warren and his detractors, the attitude was: “Look, if the world really needed this, someone, somewhere else, would have already made it”. Indeed, Australia’s lack of interest in Warren’s invention led to memorable lines in the play such as “Go overseas, if you’re an artist or a scientist – GO OVERSEAS”.
These observations are painfully resonant. Even though Warren conceived of his invention and faced challenges sharing it in the 1950s, the exodus of artists, scientists, and intellectuals from Australia remains an ongoing national challenge. Are we a country that listens to new voices and new ideas? asks the play. When will we shrug off our cultural cringe, invest in and foster talent, and allow innovation to flourish?
In what concerns Warren’s flight recorder, it was eventually spotted by a British air Vice-Marshal on an unofficial visit to Australia’s Aeronautical Research Laboratory. The Vice-Marshal immediately saw the potential of Warren’s invention and put him on a plane to the UK, where the British “bough flight memory for a song”. Flight recorders have since been made mandatory in all aircraft, leading to immense wealth for the British as well as companies in other overseas countries (ongoing lack of Australian support meant we never succeeded in capturing this growing market). “Think of all the millions we have lost!” wail the cast, their eyes glazing over slightly with the looming modern-day threat of Australia’s first recession since the early 1990s. A thorough inditement of our country’s ongoing apathy towards innovation and investment in minds as opposed to, say, in mines…
For this reason, the production of Flight Memory itself serves as a bid to push back against our prevailing culture of risk aversion and the defunding of the creative and research sectors. The play’s underlying message – that we must interrogate whether we are a country that listens to new ideas – is a radical critique of our modern values, as well as a call to action. At one point, the actor playing Warren adopts an almost preacher-like tone, encouraging the audience to live with ambition, embrace creativity, and “aspire to change”. He emphasises how someone sitting right next to you, right this minute, could be full of brilliant ideas. Yet are we listening?
Preaching normally has me crawling under the pew to slither down the exit aisle, but when the topic is the need for Australia to prioritise innovation – a topic here backed by fabulous jazz vocals, no less – I’m quite happy to stay in my chair. More power to you, Flight Memory!
Indeed, this play was ultimately a gem of a performance. Librettist Alana Valentine and composer Sandra France have created a seamless tapestry of spoken narration and song, with France leading her band through a striking score that moved between jazz, classical piano, blues, and inventive uses of musical instruments to simulate the discordant unfolding of a plane crash. The audience was even gifted an anti-bureaucrat song about red tape, with bonus scatting from the talented trio of vocalists. This reviewer was not the only one in the audience tapping her feet to the tune.
Flight Memory was unlike any other performance I had previously seen, at The Street Theatre or elsewhere. Through drawing on a blend of musical and narrative styles, combined with shedding light on an unlikely but compelling story, the play took risks and committed wholeheartedly to an experimental, rewarding vision. In this way, it modelled the very innovation it was seeking to highlight and promote. Flight Memory is a unique and powerful play, and one that deserves its wings.
Flight Memory ran from Tuesday 14 November 2019 to Sunday 17 November 2019 at The Street Theatre, Canberra.