Review By Helena Parker
Upon entering Bay 18 in CarriageWorks, there are honey coloured wooden slats positioned vertically from the stage to the ceiling and the calls of native birds can be heard; a familiar sound even to those who have only ever lived in the isolation of the city. Some of the slats, wider and dipped in the middle, resemble traditional Indigenous canoes, maui. But the characters in The Visitors, the newest play by playwright Jane Harrison, look out from the stage towards the imagined shore. For there are Maui there as well, but bigger and more ominous, and they carry several clans, sickness and guns and the smell of death in their wood. It is 1788 and the First Fleet is drawing ever closer to the shores of Warrang, present day Circular Quay.
Staged and set upon Gadigal Land, The Visitors imagines the response from a senior group of Indigenous elders just as, for the second time, ‘visitors’ from Europe attempt to land on their shores. Should they welcome them, or scare them away? Wage war or maintain an open mind about these pink ‘shiny’ visitors? This is a work of urgency and national importance as we as a country attempt to reconcile our history of brutality and the dispossession on which Australia was founded. The production provides an alternative viewpoint from the common narrative many of us were fed as children, a distinctly anglo-centric, coloniser’s tale of adversity and triumph in a land deemed terra nullius.
The Visitors challenges and upsets many preconceived ideas of this fateful landing as well as common assumptions about Indigenous culture. The seven Indigenous Elders, each leaders of a different clan, are all dressed in business suits, each subtly different. In the following Q&A after the show, Harrison expressed a desire to upset the notion of the ‘noble savage’ that is widely circulated in representations of Indigenous Elders. In wearing suits Harrison presents this group of men with a distinctly Western portrayal of authority and power that allows a similarly Western audience to connect using images in their cultural arsenal. It also makes for a powerful theatrical contrast between the warm wooded trees and what looks like businessmen talking in the bush!
This production is so powerful because we, as an audience, are often put in the positions of the colonisers. As the actors look out to that fateful shore, it is us they face. That the majority of the audience appears to be Anglo-Australian only makes these moments more weighted. The last scene, performed with great strength by Damion Hunter, is a Welcome to Country where the line between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred.
It is curious though that playwright Harrison chose to depict only Indigenous men in this reimagining of the arrival of the First Fleet. Although, regrettably, I am unsure as to the realities of decision making within Indigenous clans it seemed a shame to miss out on a portrayal of the Indigenous, female experience which is one depicted even more rarely.
Overall this is a pertinent, strong production and director Frederick Copperwaite should be congratulated on putting together such a strong and powerful production. My only caveat is that there were a few small issues with lines and cues which could, and should, be cleaned up, as it detracts from the pace and power of the piece.
At the end of the play, after some of the audience had filed out and the Q&A began, actor John Blair invited us to learn more about Indigenous culture. He introduced audience member Aunty Margaret Campbell who runs Dreamtime Southern Cross. He explained how important knowledge is, especially for cultures which others have attempted to eradicate completely. It’s an invitation for change, beginning with the individual, and I reflected back on my limited knowledge or rather, my limited attempts at seeking out knowledge. A play like The Visitors is crucial in the rebuilding of our country, the slow trek towards acknowledgement, permanent change and the exhilarating hopeful potential of the future. A very important piece of theatre from the exciting company Moogahlin Performing Arts.
Dreamtime Performing Arts runs tours and school excursions in Indigenous history around the Rocks and Circular Quay area. For more information and to book, find them at: dreamtimesouthernx.com.au
Image Credit: Jamie James
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.