[More to Tell]
One week after Australia Day, Auckland audiences are introduced to Ian Michael, a proud Noongar actor and recipient of the Melbourne Fringe Best Emerging Indigenous Artist award; an accolade achieved for the very show She Said Theatre has brought to Basement Theatre. It is the story of four men, each affected, by some degree or another, by legislation from the Australian Federal and State government, with support from church missions,which saw the removal of countless children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent from their families; the Stolen Generations.
This sort of colonial abuse, thinly veiled under the guise of protection, is not only a harrowing reminder, but also a lesson of vital importance to our future. These stories are charged. They are palpable. They are real. As a white New Zealander of Anglo-Saxon descent who has never suffered the forced loss of my family let alone my identity, there is no way I can truly empathise, and I would argue it arrogant of me to claim otherwise, but as a practitioner presented with an artistic piece, I can sympathise. Other audience members cried, some gave a standing ovation. So why was I so utterly bored?
The challenge verbatim theatre presents to its orchestrator is its arrangement. This is true of any play, however, when dealing with verbatim text, the construction of a progressive narrative in terms of a consequential story arc (whether linear or non-linear) is more elusive. There is no question of the multitude of stories that exist for the Stolen Generations, or the catharsis inherent in them, but to present them as a performance requires a firm yet subtle hand to dissect and structure them in the most theatrically compelling way.
Michael tautologically announces that, along with their similarities, we may see few differences in the characters we’re about to see. While the intention of this statement is clear in terms of addressing how significantly the government’s actions affected an entire indigenous population, the irony is that asides from a slight slumping in his chair, Michael does little to distinguish these characters from one another. Without these characterisations, the production stagnates between a play and an installation art performance.
Raya Slavin’s haunting composition and sound design, and Michael Carmody’s raw AV design indicates that the latter may have been a more viable style for the work. On the other hand, Chloe Greaves’ set is a wonderfully simple yet affective touch, providing Michael with a sense of grounding, community, and play.
I entered Hart knowing very little about the Stolen Children, and left knowing little more. Their stories are inarguably important, and reflect one of the most traditional concepts of theatre: to tell our stories so that others may learn. To suggest it was the content that bored me would be an insult to not only to indigenous Australians, but also myself. She Said Theatre founders Penny Harpham (HART director) and Seanna van Helten (who collaborated with Michael on the text) have an excellent body of work, and combined with their collective education and experience along with Creative Producer Anna Kennedy, the components for “authentic,” “cunning”, “complex”, “disturbing”, “disquieting”, “enthralling”, “evocative”, “poetic”, “raw”, “riveting”, and “stunning” work is supremely evident. Perhaps these words led me to expect something other than what HART had to offer as a theatrical piece.
Hart plays at The Basement until February 6. For details see The Basement.