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Review: 'Matriarch' at Old 505 Theatre

By Lily Stokes

Australian theatre curriculums are speckled with First Nations stories. Often over studied and under grasped, I’ve encountered brilliant works such as Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s ‘The 7 Stages of Grieving’ and Jane Harrison’s ‘Stolen’ in my secondary education. Into university, ‘Parramatta Girls’ and ‘Jasper Jones’ have made brief reference to the atrocities faced by Indigenous people in this country. Having never had the chance to see most of these works performed, my understanding of the power and raw emotional quality of First Nations theatre was severely misunderstood. That was, until I watched the opening performance of ‘Matriarch’. When I walked out the Old 505 theatre, I’d felt a depth of emotion I had never experienced within a theatre before. In the words of solo-actor Sandy Greenwood, “I [could] feel [that] trauma permeate my being, and it didn’t even happen to me”.

‘Matriarch’ explores the strength and resilience of four generations of Indigenous women through the metamorphic brilliance of Greenwood. With specific focus on the effects of intergenerational trauma inherited by the descendants of the Stolen Generation, ‘Matriarch’ combines story-telling, dreaming, dance and music in a dialogue-driven collage of memory. It balances moments of elation  with moments of raw vulnerability, leaving audiences (including myself) deeply moved.

To say Greenwood’s performance was captivating would be an understatement. Her commitment to every persona and emotion was breathtakingly powerful, sharing moments of unspeakable sorrow with those of child-like euphoria. One particularly moving moment showed Greenwood flickering between an Indigenous child and an abusive nun, never letting her characterisation of one bleed into the other. Her agility between not only roles but emotions was a testament to her incredible abilities. I was absolutely engulfed by her grief, her joy and her spirit, sharing silent tears with those who surrounded me. In the final moment of the piece, the lights dimmed and I felt a communal breath taken by those who had just witnessed her performance. It was nothing short of brilliant.

The integration of song, didgeridoo music and dance was a particular highlight of this performance. Sean Ryan’s didgeridoo and vocal accompaniment was naked and beautiful, sharing moments of visible feeling with Greenwood. The set (although simple) was effective and allusive with bird calls and natural sounds completing the landscape. Although ‘Matriarch’ was a one-woman show, you could see the greenery, the animals and the people in each interaction. Greenwood’s traceable eye lines and gesture ensured that every scene felt like a group-scene.

Although I had some initial trouble distinguishing characters and timeline, the pacing of this emotional mosaic was eventually steady and plottable. Dialogue was considered, and each scene had a well-rounded structure thanks to co-authors Lauren Jarrett, Oliver V. Cowley and Greenwood herself. Clearly the three had work-shopped and refined the piece, ensuring that every word and action was absolutely necessary to the communication of their work.

One major criticism I have would be in regard to the venue and curation (rather than to the realisation of ‘Matriarch’). The theatre had no appropriate exit for audiences, meaning one would have to cross the stage in order to leave the venue. Furthermore, there were no content warnings that I encountered prior to the performance. Considering the array of themes explored in ‘Matriarch’, are we not furthering trauma by not providing audiences with a safe way out? At times, I did feel very deeply affected and wondered if this would have been overwhelming for those more personally acquainted with the experiences re-enacted. Although I do acknowledge the limitations of the space, I maintain that this should be reconsidered in future productions.

Ultimately, I feel incredibly thankful to have seen ‘Matriarch’. It has given me a greater, more personal understanding of how the past journeys into the present, often through the vehicle of shared memory. ‘Matriarch’ brings forth the pain, injustice and anger of the past and transforms it into a story of healing and strength. It is an unmissable performance of Greenwood’s, and I would urge you to experience this work with a wide-open heart. 

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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