A song for Pinochet's victims

September 4, 1991

Story and photo by Peter Boyle

When Brett Melke was a law student at Melbourne University, he worked part time as a hospital orderly. This is how he met Dr Eduardo Aranda, the brother of a Chilean union leader who was imprisoned under General Pinochet's dictatorship.

"I'd been obsessed with Latin American politics since fifth form, and so coaxed Dr Aranda into talking about life in Chile. At first, he was worried that talking about left politics might cost him his job. He'd always whisper when he spoke about politics — a habit ingrained by the terror of life under dictatorship. Anyway, the stories he told inspired me to write the musical Victor Jara: A Song for Chile."

Halfway through writing the play, Melke and some friends secured a writers grant from Melbourne University, which freed him from working in the hospital. They formed Halcyon Theatre.

While the play focusses on the music and political life of the late Victor Jara, the Chilean theatre director who turned to writing and performing folk music to inspire and promote socialism and who was killed by the dictatorship, it is a play more about politics than about the man.

"We did a lot of research for this play, sifting through documents, articles and speaking to many people. Adrian Dunlop — another person I met at the hospital — helped with the research and went to Chile and met Joan Jara, Victor's widow. What we found out about Pinochet's 1973 coup and the United States involvement chilled us."

The first public reading of the musical packed out Melbourne's La Mama Theatre on August 3, and two more readings will be staged at the Mechanics Institute, Brunswick, on September 6 and 7. Songs and excerpts from the musical will also be performed at a Green Left Weekly dinner cabaret on October 19 at 14 Anthony Street, Melbourne. Next year it will go into full production.

This is Brett Melke's third musical script to be performed in Melbourne. The others were Little Berlin, about relationships between the Anglo and German communities in the Barossa Valley before World War II, and The Permissive Garden, about suburbia and the environment.

"I grew up in suburbia and a neighbour's cemented over backyard and double garage inspired The Permissive Garden." Little Berlin was based on stories about Melke's grandfather, who grew up in the Barossa Valley; Melke is of Anglo-German descent. His is a staunch "football family" and Brett, by

his own admission, is the odd one out.

Melke, now an articled clerk with a legal firm, hopes to continue working on political theatre after hours. He says he is used to working that way, and "if you are interested in political theatre, you've got to be prepared not to find funding easy — unless you are very lucky".

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