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Review: Jane Harrison's The Visitors at the Sydney Opera House

Review by Priscilla Issa

Jane Harrison’s play “The Visitors”, staged by renowned director Wesley Enoch and Moogahlin Performing Arts company, has been updated since its premiere in 2020 to include women performers, the integration of local language, as well as a new set, costumes, music and lighting. Like the decision to amend the script, this play challenges audiences to consider a country that is different from the one we currently occupy and to weigh up arguments and counter-arguments to forge a way forward on October 14th.

The script tells the story of the arrival of 11 ships, or nawi, in 1788. The elders and representatives at the centre are Gordon (Luke Carroll), Jaky (Elaine Crombie), Joseph (Kyle Morrison), Gary (Guy Simon), Albert (Beau Dean Riley Smith), Wallace (Dalara Williams) and Lawrence (Joseph Wunujaka Althouse). It examines the response of the First Nations elders to the First Fleet’s arrival. Should they engage in war or welcome the visitors ashore? The elders afford each individual the right to interrogate the evidence and voice their opinion. The discussions are diplomatic and civilised. The evidence is well-considered. Yet, the consensus to welcome ashore the visitors is not without moral quandary. This dilemma lies within a culture that is grounded in obligation and generosity. They cannot fathom the idea that visitors may want to invade. It comes as no surprise to audiences that the final decision to welcome the “visitors” is a fatal one.

This play offers a tapestry of emotion; it weaves together solemnity, humour and charm. The cast, an ensemble of resounding prowess, showcases the resilience and indomitability of the various “mobs” the elders represent. Their chemistry is permeable. Williams and Simon deliver standout performances of remarkable depth. Crombie’s impeccable comic timing injects a delightful levity and much-needed reprieve. Morrison, Althouse and Smith each have natural gravitas on stage. Yet, it is Carroll who truly seizes the spotlight in his role as Gordon, grappling with the notion that the visitors must be regarded as savages to be driven away. His portrayal propels the production to a riveting emotional zenith. It leaves audiences with clarity on the necessity to navigate their political opinions in the next few weeks.

The exploration of the lives of different elders and their communities paints a vivid picture of a sophisticated and intricate society. The production evokes parallels between Indigenous Australian community sophistication and contemporary political formalities. The choice to dress elders in suits for political debates underscores the intellectual depth of their conversations. The language used to describe the “visitors” serves as a stark reminder that exclusionary language is a universal human folly that demands conscious correction. The inclusion of women in pre-colonial political decision-making among the First Peoples serves as a powerful example of how cultures can evolve to embrace diversity and inclusivity. These choices are the result of a culturally informed process that reveres the diversity of First Peoples’ experiences, water, air, practices, languages and lore. A creative team that includes Cultural Liaison Aunty Yvonne Simms and First Peoples associate artists has crafted a work of historical fiction that serves as both a tribute and a call to action, compelling us to reflect on our shared humanity and the importance of embracing diversity in our collective journey.

The stunning set, designed by Elizabeth Gadsby, evokes all that the natural Sydney foreshores have to offer - a sea breeze, bird calls and spiritual sandstone rock formations. Yet, the ominous fog, heat and dark grey clouds foreshadow the inevitable end all Australians know.

Karen Norris’s lighting and Brendon Boney’s sound design work together to pay tribute to a landscape from a more natural time, but also one that remains constant and giving.

In the end, the director and playwright want audiences to consider the possibility that Australia’s future does not need to replicate its past. They want audiences to visualise a different world - one that allows us to meditate on our history and move forward, honouring Indigenous sovereignty and choosing benevolence for our fellow human beings.

Image Supplied


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