Sunday, September 20, 2015

Aboriginality on the London stage

NicĂ´le Lecky in This Heaven
In the past week, I have seen two very distinct representations of Aboriginal Australia on the London stage.  The first was a play by an indigenous Australian writer, Nakkiah Lui's This Heaven, which has just finished its run at the Finborough.  I was asked to take part in a post-show panel discussion, which, given the play's concern with the issue of deaths in custody, inevitably turned to Beautiful One Day, and also to Bullie's House (the latter ends with a death in custody, although here the implication is that the Aboriginal man dies because of his separation from land and community, rather than as a direct result of police brutality).  Like both of those plays (to a greater or lesser degree), This Heaven is the result of the Belvoir Theatre's sustained engagement with indigenous culture - and so it is perhaps all the more disturbing to hear in it the voice of discontented Aboriginal youth, in the character of the trainee lawyer Sissy, expressing fury that even her success as an indigenous person is measured in terms of a white world view.  But isn't this exactly the problem of the whole "development" agenda?  We measure "improvements" in the post-colonial space and the lot of indigenous peoples solely in terms of how close they can come to our way of living.  We praise them for becoming more like us, and lament our own failings when they refuse to do so.  We assume that economic prosperity is the only measure of human endeavour, and we impose this on those whom our ancestors once conquered.  Theatre may be as guilty as every other field of endeavour, and Lui is right to provoke.

Gary Wood in Our Country's Good
I was still thinking about these concerns when, the next night, I saw the National Theatre's production of Our Country's Good.  In spite of its "modern classic" status, I'd actually never seen the play before - though I knew Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker, on which it is based.  Since Tom also wrote Bullie's House, I had expected another nuanced and provocative engagement with Aboriginal culture.  Indeed, The Playmaker is dedicated to "Arabanoo and his brethren, still dispossessed", in a direct acknowledgment of Aboriginal man who worked to build a relationship with Captain Arthur Philip, whose expedition to Australia forms the background to the story.  In Tom's novel, this relationship is central - but in the play, it has been abandoned.  There remains, however, the figure of "The Aborigine", whom the text shows as speaking four times in a direct audience address.  These moments have the potential to be powerful theatrical interventions in the colonial narrative: for example, the second scene of the play is titled "A lone Aboriginal Australian describes the arrival of the First Convict Fleet in Botany Bay on January 20, 1788", and the spoken text reads: "A giant canoe drifts onto the sea, clouds billowing from upright oars.  This is a dream which has lost its way.  Best to leave it alone."

This language is sparse, poetic and evocative.  It was also totally lost in the National production.  I'm not sure if it was even spoken, or, if it was, whether it was spoken in English.  Certainly there was no contact between the Aboriginal character and the audience.  Every production decision was calculated to make him distant and "Other" - exotic, and therefore of no concern to us.  Michael Billington's review talks of him "exerting some mysterious Puck-like power", as if the indigenous were literally another world.  The production brings him into the action whenever there is violence or cruelty between the white characters, as if he were the embodiment of their savagery.  This is about as far from the open spirit of Belvoir as it is possible to get - and it really saddens me to see it on Britain's national stage in the 21st century.