The Ship That Never Was: Play about convict escape celebrates 25 years in Strahan
Cast-members at the 25th anniversary performance of the Ship That Never Was in Strahan. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
“Ladies and gentlemen, there was another actor who had a leading part in the play today. It was my dad — we fired his ashes out of the cannon tonight!”
With those words, Kiah Davey’s voice broke with emotion and was quickly subsumed in the sound of half a town cheering.
The isolated western Tasmanian town of Strahan marked the 25th anniversary performance of the play, The Ship That Never Was, in a rowdily joyous fashion.
‘The Ship’ as it is known to the locals, is also Australia’s longest-running play.
It recounts the incredible true story of ten convicts who stole a ship built at the Sarah Island penal settlement and successfully sailed it to Chile, South America.
Crowd involvement is a feature of the Ship That Never Was. Here the crowd generates a storm with water-pistols and thigh-slapping thunder. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
The locals dressed as convicts, simulated storms with water pistols and chanted catch-phrases in the best pantomime tradition: “Liberty or death!”.
Tourists were also present — around 400,000 people from across the globe have seen it.
A wild history comes alive through theatre
It was the chaotic synergy between actors and audience that the late playwright Richard Davey honed over decades of near-nightly performances and which Kiah maintains today.
“My dad originally debuted his play in Hobart 34 years ago but he started nightly performances for tourists here in Strahan, 25 years ago,” Ms Davey said.
The late Richard Davey giving cruise-boat tourists a guided history tour of Sarah Island in 2008. (Supplied: Rick Eaves)
“He got sick seven years ago and died a year later so I started running the business here for him.
“I think this anniversary performance is number 6,693 — or something like that.
“We perform the play to about 15 or 16,000 people a year.”
The Davey family’s Round Earth Company, now owned and operated by Kiah, also produces daily guided tours of Sarah Island for cruise boats already plying Macquarie Harbour and the rainforest area of Gordon River.
Richard, Kiah and numerous other actors and guides who have worked for the company have had the luxury of quiet hours between cruise boats on this very isolated island.
Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour was home to a brutal penal settlement from 1822 to 1834. (Supplied: Rick Eaves)
Crumbling ruins and stunning natural beauty belie the horror of the prison it once was.
The Daveys have explored every inch of it and every inch of the submerged shipyards and docks that surround it as well.
Sarah Island, hell on earth but a playwright’s own paradise
Predating the larger and better known Port Arthur settlement, Sarah Island operated between 1822 and 1834 and had a reputation for being one of the harshest prisons in the British Empire, especially in its early years.
Between 1822 and 1828, there were 156 escape attempts.
The most famous escapee was Alexander Pearce, one of eight men who tried to walk through the south-west wilderness to Hobart, resorting to cannibalism to survive.
Kiah and Cathy Davey cut a cake with former ranger, Alan Coates, after the 25th anniversary performance of the Ship That Never Was in Strahan. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
Pearce was the only survivor and was eventually captured, found guilty of murder and hanged in Hobart.
Round Earth Company moved around Australia
Through the tours on Sarah Island, Richard and Kiah were in the unique position of spending more time on this richly storied heritage site than anyone else.
“We felt a responsibility there and still do — a kind of guardianship,” Ms Davey said.
“We often do some weeding and tidy up paths, things like that.
Actor Rick Mourant was an early Round Earth Company performer and made a return for the 25th anniversary of The Ship That Never Was in Strahan. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
“My dad was forever researching the stories of it, to refine the play and to write books about the place.”
Richard Davey and his wife Cathy originally founded the Round Earth Company in Perth, Western Australia.
It was a group of story-tellers, musicians and artists who travelled to the far north-west and central parts of the continent for a cultural exchange with Aboriginal communities.
“I was about 4 years-old on their first trip — I learnt to swim in a billabong full of crocodiles apparently,” Kiah Davey recalls.
Richard Davey’s first production of The Ship That Never Was at the Peacock Theatre in Hobart, fired the imagination of a young man named Alan Coates.
When Mr Coates moved to Strahan as a Parks and Wildlife Ranger, ten years later, he asked Richard Davey if he would bring the play to Strahan “where the story belongs”.
“I remembered the play at Salamanca, with people hanging off ropes and barrels, flying through the air and I just thought it would be perfect to have it here in it’s natural setting,” Mr Coates said.
“The locals loved it straight up and embraced it and it so enriched the experience of the place for tourists.
“And 25 years is a long, long time! It’s nice to think that there people in Strahan who’ve never known life without ‘The Ship’.
“There are people like that who watched and joined in as kids who now get to bring their own kids along.”
Around 30 past performers of The Ship That Never Was joined a huge crowd for the special 25th anniversary show.
Kiah Davey adapted the script to allow for 10 of those to be on stage.
The late Richard Davey walking along the submerged slips at Sarah Island where the Frederick was built in the 1830s. (Supplied: Rick Eaves)
Although this number was actually 11, if you count the late Richard Davey, who would have loved the dramatic chorus of gasps and cheers at the revelation he had been there in spirit — and shot from a cannon.