Review by Regan Baker
We, as humans, have an innate desire to feel connected. Connected to land, connected to people, connected to culture and to religion. It’s what makes us who we are. From stories that are passed down from generation to generation, to the experiences we share and cherish. Connectivity is fundamental to our development as individuals and as communities.
After the tragic passing of her mother, Joan heads to country to try and reconnect with her long-lost-father that abandoned her and her mum when she was just a little girl. Growing up in the city as a white-skinned Indigenous woman was hard for Joan, and now that she has found her father, she wants answers about her identity and her culture. Unfortunately, those answers don’t come easily from Mick, who is haunted by a past that he does not wish to share, leaving Joan to feel disconnected and lost about who she is.
Don’t Ask What the Bird Look Like is a beautiful story about identity and the desire to feel connected in a world that is vast and confusing. With a cast of only three, it is an intimate First Nations story written by Hannah Belanszky who utilised her own journey of connecting with her roots as a Yuwaalaraay woman when she was a young adult. The script was a finalist in the 2018-19 Queensland Premier’s Drama Awards, which prompted Queensland Theatre’s adaption, and after being delayed a season due to the floods it finals hits the stage this September!
Despite its accolades, I find myself at a crossroads with the script as a whole and left the theatre feeling unsatisfied and a little lost. At 100 minutes in length, Don’t Ask What the Bird Look Like has no interval, however the sudden conclusion of the story felt more like one than it did a finale. It left my partner and I both questioning what we were supposed to take away from the story as there didn’t appear to be any growth, or arc in Mick’s character, and Joan never actually got the answers she was seeking. Don’t get me wrong – the story we are exposed to is deeply beautiful, well written and all round a very incredible piece of theatre, it just lacked a rounded ending.
Am I saying, “Don’t go and see it?” Absolutely not.
Story aside, the production is superb. Roxanne McDonald made her Queensland Theatre directorial debut alongside Artistic Director Lee Lewis, and the universe they create is truly magnificent. They help Belanszky’s voice leap from the page and implant themselves on the hearts and minds of the audience. Working around a simple one-set stage that is rooted in outback charm and Indigenous heritage, your focus is never taken away from the dialogue-heavy story.
As with any dialogue driven story, the final charm of the production is largely reliant on a cast that knows how to produce emotion and empathy from their audience.
In the lead role of Joan, Matilda Brown delivers a soft and loving daughter who harbours self-control well beyond her years. She handles challenging emotional shifts within her character well, and while I wasn’t initially a fan of her in the opening scenes, Brown let’s her walls down and allows the character to flourish once her relationship with her estranged father develops. She is well articulated and her sometimes subtle movements brought an air of light-heartedness to the role.
Absolutely stealing the show, however, was the hilarious Shakira Clanton in the role of Pattie. The show doesn’t exactly open at lightning speed and takes a little while to build momentum, but once Clanton bursts onto the set around 25-minutes in, the speed, and humour, drastically increase! There isn’t a single thing not to love about Clanton in this production. Her volume control, her accent, her wit, her actions, everything she does is simply perfect. Her character is a superb comic relief in what would have otherwise been a dry tale between a daughter who wants answers and a father who did not want to give them. She empathises beautifully with Joan’s mission and commends her for wanting to know more about her culture, while also working effortlessly to try and push Mick to open up about his past.
Speaking of Mick, Michael Tuahine had a tall assignment in attempting to portray the hard-working, closed off, tight-lipped role of Joan’s father. I call it a tall assignment as I feel as though any actor cast in the role was going to struggle, as Mick’s character, to me, was underdeveloped. As my published-author roommate puts it, “Every story, in one capacity or another, needs to present change,” and for Don’t Ask What the Bird Look Like to work as a story, this change needed to come through Mick, and it simply didn’t. Joan came looking for answers from her father and he didn’t give them. He was presented with opportunities to open up about his past, and he didn’t. In turn, the absence of a story arc here is what left my partner and I wondering what our take away from the story was supposed to be, as there was no growth and no learning.
Bypassing my issues with the character, I have to commend Tuahine on tackling such a tough, almost one-directional role with a stern beauty that demonstrated a completely broken soul with a terribly haunted past. While Mick’s dialogue was often short and emotionless, Tuahine’s actions portrayed an undercurrent of wanting an emotional connection, but almost like he had forgotten how to have one.
Even in writing this review I am lost about my thoughts of Don’t Ask What the Bird Look Like. I have issues with the finale and with Mick’s character, I think that is relatively clear, but as a whole I really didn’t dislike the play. Perhaps it is because it is unlike anything I have seen before, or perhaps I have completely missed the point – I don’t know. What was presented was beautiful, and emotional, and brilliantly acted and scored. It just left me wanting more. More answer’s – More to Mick – More conflict.
Despite everything I’ve said, I would still highly recommend heading to Queensland Theatre and checking it out, because even if it strikes you the same way it does me, there is one thing that is certain. You will still be thinking about it days later!