Past masters

Wordsmith … author Thomas Keneally.
Wordsmith … author Thomas Keneally.

David Wenham strides onto the stage and delivers a searing account of the brutality of life in the penal colony of Australia, written in 1830 by convict Laurence Frayne.

Tex Perkins presents an excerpt from Ned Kelly's stunningly articulate 1879 defence of his outlaw ways. Dina Panozzo delivers a passage from Pauline Hanson's 1996 maiden speech in Federal Parliament, attacking Asian immigration and multiculturalism. Claudia Karvan reads a fiery call to arms from Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. Madeleine Madden, granddaughter of Charles Perkins, presents a heart-wrenching account by Bill Simon, a child of the stolen generations, of being torn from his devastated mother.

In 90 minutes and through a range of voices, The People Speak offers an alternative history of Australia. Author and justifiably anointed national living treasure Thomas Keneally, who contributed to research on the project and hosts the event, says that ''the thing that emerges from all the pieces is that these things are from the gut: they are the voices of profoundly felt experience''.

The performance, which was staged in July at Sydney's Carriageworks before an audience of 250, assembles one- to two-minute extracts from a range of speeches, letters, books, newspaper articles and diaries.

In his introduction Keneally explains that ''this is not meant to be a pious history of Australia … this is a history of argument, protests and conflict, and what we hear is often spoken by people on the margins''. The performers include Jack Thompson, John Jarratt, Sophie Lowe, Kelton Pell, Chris Haywood, Alex Dimitriades and Dan Wyllie, with some others - Sam Worthington, Rebecca Gibney, Ryan Kwanten and Matilda Brown - filmed at other locations. The readings are also punctuated with songs: Julia Stone singing I Was Only 19, Tex Perkins doing a spirited interpretation of Waltzing Matilda, and Christine Anu closing the show with From Little Things Big Things Grow.

Rather than covering the centuries of white settlement in strict chronological order, the program moves according to themes: fights for rights by women, indigenous Australians, workers and gays; the defiance of law from Ned Kelly to the Eureka Stockade and the Green Bans; immigration; wars; the republic; conscription.

There are statements from those intent on maintaining the status quo and arguments from those dedicated to rocking the foundations. ''History has been contested ground always,'' Keneally says.

Producer-director Phillip Tanner concedes that you can't provide a comprehensive history in 90 minutes. ''But what you can do,'' he says, ''is move through various important stages of our history.''

The result is a vibrant impression of the development of a country and of a population simmering with dissent and inclined to robust debate. These are passionate pleas from people describing with anger, alarm or dismay what they see as untenable and arguing for change.

The approach to the material is to use snippets of the texts, rather than presenting them in their entirety. It's a history cannily condensed into bite-size chunks, ideal for the Twitter generation.

''We had to make the history relevant but also succinct,'' Tanner explains. ''That was probably the trickiest thing - to keep it flying and to keep it entertaining.

''So we tried to keep it as dynamic as possible, using moving images wherever we could, though that becomes difficult when you're talking about early history, because there were no photographs and we had to rely on drawings or paintings.''

The format is modelled on a project of the same name inspired by the work of US historian Howard Zinn. Tanner explains that Zinn had a ''view of history as being from the bottom up, rather than top down; that democracy starts in the streets, with the people, and not in parliament''.

The original production screened in the US in 2009 and featured Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Rosario Dawson, Marisa Tomei, John Legend, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and Pink. An English version a year later starred Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellan, Joss Stone and Keira Knightley.

Employing marquee names certainly makes it a sexier sell, although there are other advantages to using actors to read the words. ''I was astonished by how good some of these people could make them sound, as one always is with actors,'' Keneally says.

''Actors are used to dealing with the subtext of the plainest line, so when they get rich lines like this, they can really go to town.''

Actor Rob Carlton, who presents two pieces, understands the appeal of the project. ''Actors in general are enormously curious about history. We're naturally sceptical of that which we read as a truth. So to have a look at these different streams of information coming through these different characters is a really interesting thing to be involved with.''

Despite the experience of the performers, backstage there were nerves, dry mouths and calls for water. ''It was one of the most exciting things, being backstage with Thomas Keneally and Jack Thompson and Tex Perkins and Claudia Karvan,'' Carlton says. ''All these amazing actors and all of them very nervous. Because we hadn't rehearsed the pieces, we didn't know them by heart, we were reading them. And that's not a usual state for an actor. Normally when we step out on stage, if it's a theatre, we've prepared, hopefully had six weeks' rehearsal. If it's film or TV, we know that we can go again. But here we had a live audience, no rehearsal and off we go.''

Everyone involved hopes The People Speak will engage a broad audience, provide a fresh overview of the nation's history, and stimulate discussion. Maybe even set the bar a bit higher for the standard of our national conversation.

''Certainly when you look at the current state of discourse, it's perhaps a timely reminder to our leaders that they should be thinking about a little bit more than a cheap political point in the 24-hour news cycle and think perhaps about the weight of thought leadership that rests on their shoulders,'' Carlton says.

Beyond that, he reckons that history can be as good as a holiday. ''A good history is like good travel overseas. You learn a hell of a lot more about your own country when you travel overseas, and you learn a hell of a lot more about your own ideological position when you look back through time.''

The People Speak

The History Channel, Sunday, 7.30pm

This story Past masters first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.