Review By Rowan Brunt
The Return is a new Australian work at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre Company commissioned by the RISING Festival. The Return delves into the macabre history of cultural institutions treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples Ancestral remains and how under the guise of ‘scientific research’ are displayed and locked away, unable to return to country.
Torres Strait Islander Playwright John Harvey and co-directors, Yorta Yorta man, Jason Tamiru and Matthew Lutton explore, over three time periods and 250 years, the repercussions of remains not returning to country and the bleeding of generational trauma that can occur due to this. The main setting, the Museum of Origins, introduces us to a seemingly tokenistically appointed curator and the First Nations workers who perform as ‘specimens’ to the public on marble plinths under the guise of education. The story is woven through the items handled and stored in the museum, leading us back to their origin where we bear witness to 20th century bone collectors robbing an Aboriginal grave site, the global demand for First Nations remains under the guise of anthropological study and finally a modern day farmer liaising with repatriation workers on the return of a skull his late grandfather had ‘owned’.
The cold musuem setting aids in the thriller style of Harvey’s piece as we jump back and forward in time and begin to bear witness to the First Nations staff members being imbued with the spirit of said remains. The production is shocking but directed where so, as the audience, we cannot look away but stay incredibly invested throughout. There is wonderful use of repetition in scenes throughout the piece and clever mirroring of historical moments that make the audience unable to pin a scene sometimes to a period as a reflections of this continual ongoing issue.
The ensemble cast of Jimi Bain, Ghenoa Gela, Damion Hunter, Angelica Lockyer, Laila Thaker and Guy Simon take on various First Nations and white characters throughout the piece. A particular highlight is the physicality of Ghenoa Gela which is intense and haunting and so deeply affective that it is felt by the audience bearing witness. Jumping forward and backwards in time the cast lead us expertly with quick changes of pace and characterisation at the blink of an eye, most actors playing vastly different characters throughout the piece all on different sides of history.
The consistent circular theme throughout the piece is also aided by set designer Zoe Atkinson with a textured, black mulch hill with railway tracks around, aiding in the period feel to certain scenes but highlighting the cold, clinical feeling of institutions and contrasting both industrial and natural worlds. A deep oscillation in the composition and sound design by Jethro Woodward heightens the sense of recurring nature and also the pain felt through people and place.
The Return as a whole keeps an audience member so deeply invested in the story that is slowly being peeled back, a comment on the complicated nature of our nation unwilling to peel back and own its own layers of history. Poignant and deeply affective in its telling, this piece is important in its call for change and speaks to the true social justice potentiality of theatre and story telling.