Above: Playwright Jane Harrison. Featured image : Damion Hunter played the Bay Clan leader. Image of Damion Hunter by Jamie James
Visitors, especially from afar, are typically not expected to stay for long. They are expected to eventually return to the land they are a part of, which they would miss in a quintessential way if separated from it for some time.
Such was the sentiment echoed by one of the seven characters in Jane Harrison’s moving play The Visitors, which was premiered at Carriageworks Sydney this week to great audience reaction and a standing ovation.
This successful playwright, writer of plays such as Stolen and Rainbow’s End remains a champion of theatre in this country and beyond with this clever, entertaining and thought-provoking stage world.
In effective manipulation of identity, the characters, seven male clan leaders of the Eora nation, assemble in 1788 for an important meeting amongst the trees. They debate the approach of people in boats from afar and what is the acceptable plan of defence or welcome.
This inventive theatrical event confronts us with the leaders dressed not in traditional Aboriginal outfits but in three piece suits. This is a clever and striking use of Western civilisation’s costume code for formality, business, success in work and status.
The entire play proceeds with the various personalities of the passionate, observant but very gentle men comfortable and businesslike in such garb. They sport a few of the traditional accessories, weapons we know were used as well as a meeting space message stick adding to the costume reversal on occasion.
Harrison’s script, in heightened and varied English with a small amount of Gadigal language is a rich combination of language and flows delightfully. Direct and endearing, the lively parlance suggests confident and solid identity, humour, logic and down to earth reaction to the return of the previously encountered visitors with their dubious ways.
The behaviours of visitors witnessed for over eighteen years are colourfully and intelligently described, and never by mere colour of their skin. Respectful titles tossed between the men assembled as they argue and discuss alternate with poetic monologues. The retelling of past interactions by message stick holders puts a strong set of reasons forward for repelling or welcoming the growing group of boat people on approach.
Above : Director of The Visitors and one of the founder of Moogahlin Performing Arts, Frederick Copperwaite.
As the suited individuals pledge the support of each clan to defending the Eora Nation, they drift between rather polite political discussion and business-like analysis and candid, emotional observations or memories of these type of visitors.
Vignettes from the nearand distant past here treat the British and European people as the ‘other’, reflecting the clinical accounts we have all read from explorers or early settlers about that thern Land’s enatives.
The well paced banter reveals exchanges about the visitors which is as comic and charming as the local rivalries and personality clashes that keep this careful war council alive. More extended but neutral commentary on the treatment of Australian wildlife, indigenous women, children and the environment by the visitors various over the years instantly becomes chilling, given the events of 1788 and beyond we are all familiar with.
A relatively non-judgmental and questioning examination of the British visitors’ curious hygiene, habits, addictions and language is a significant role reversal in this piece. Shock and reminiscing around the topic of British violence to the First Peoples as well as amongst themselves and as seen in the action on board an approaching ship is a clever and subtle double-edged sword, and an interestin moment of comment on the culturein crisis advancing.
Such subtly scripted instances of intelligent and thoughtful description, open-ended questioning and disbelief are expertly delivered by this balanced ensemble across designer Lisa Mimmocchi’s exquisite set design with skew trees and hypnotic use of haze or smoke effect.
Seven men would make any stage challengingly full, but movement of these bodies around the space is fluid, smoothly and deftly controlled by director Frederick Copperwaite, who uses the contrasts in the personas from each clan well, both in solo and ensemble arrangement.
This Moogahlin Performing Arts production in this Sydney Festival is a slick reminder of the fateful invasion, and turns on its head over two centuries of mocking or dismissal of the sustainable existence and lifestyle pace of Sydney’s Gadigal people. It does so to an evocative backdrop of Phil Downing’s excellent soundscapes of native bird and water effects.
This snapshot of a contented culture in a working model of habitation and in a very British style meeting structure serves to heighten the shock of the clan leaders’ possible welcome being tragically abused. It is a timely and riveting play to be consumed as Australia heads towards Invasion Day celebrations once more.
The Visitors plays at Carriageworks, Eveleigh until January 26