Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bravo Bloodland: a spontaneous response (but not a ‘review’)

I am a regular theatre-goer. I love it. I admire the actors, the production, everything that goes into transporting our lives for just a few hours. There are times I’d gladly be an usher, just to see performances over and over again. Early in my academic career when I felt nervous about standing in front of students, a colleague suggested that lecturing can be like theatre—you’re on a stage, you have story to tell, tell it as you would wish to have it told to you. I try and I think it works, most of the time.

With theatre (or classical music concerts for that matter) I enjoy the anticipation of the unknown, the story unfolding, the hope that I might see the world in a different way. Sometimes one is moved from the opening line, sometimes the emotion creeps up as the story unfolds. Always, I leave appreciating that I have seen others present their world in a creative and challenging way, even if I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

Last week, I saw (again) Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. I was happy to be watching another Australian classic, one I first saw at school with the travelling theatre troupe (probably the QTC), one I’ve seen staged brilliantly by Frank Theatre in a sassy pastiche of Australia and Japan that I’m yet to see surpassed. The ‘Doll’, for me, is part of our Australian story.

But today, I saw a play of such drama, such emotion, such superb storytelling that I hesitate to write anything, lest I fail to capture something of the impact this play will have on me for a long time to come. The 140-character tweet-response would certainly not do.

Bloodland is everything I expect from theatre. It is directed by the marvellous Stephen Page and written by Wayne Blair (The Sunshine Club) from a story by these two and Kathy Balngayngu Marika. It is performed in the language of the community whose story it tells. There is a lyricism that transports you as an audience member. It is an important reminder that English is an introduced language to this country. The music, the lighting, the set—those things that also make a play—are similarly superb. The actors use the space brilliantly.

[I’m going to pause here, I feel inadequately prepared to write this post right now. I want Bloodland to be a permanent part of Australian theatre, and I need to go away and think a little more about the incredible resilience of our Indigenous people.]

I’m back…

You know there is something about art that compels when every fibre of your body reacts and responds to what is before you. This is a play that makes you laugh, brings a tear to your eye, makes you want to reach out to a sister or brother next to you. I loved the laughter of the Indigenous women sitting behind me, their ‘knowing’ of the meaning of what was being presented, and knowing more deeply. I felt a wrenching within as I watched what our Indigenous people have endured.

Bloodland tells a story that I guess those who read newspapers, listen to radio and watch current affairs TV will think they are familiar with, but it tells it with gritty realism, a sense of humour (especially the ‘nature documentary’ scene—to say more might spoil it) and the bitter/sweet/ness of the class with ‘Miss White’. There is an aesthetic and grace that mirrors the lives of our Indigenous people. The movement across the stage was just gorgeous, as would be expected from members of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

So many thoughts ran through my head as I watched this play. The word ‘reconciliation’ ebbed and flowed throughout. It matters to me that white Australia acknowledges its past. Sometimes, I feel rather hollowed out by the hackneyed appropriation of the term by politicians and policymakers and the ways some in my profession, academia, would also seek to see ‘reconciliation’ as a problem-solving exercise.

Someone during the week threw out (on Twitter I think) that quote of Winston Churchill, apocryphal perhaps, that when advised to cut the arts budget to pay for the war, he apparently said, ‘then what are we fighting for?’. The sentiment came back today as I watched the Bloodland story unfold. Say all we like and spend all we must on reconciliation, but I reckon spend 90 minutes in the theatre with this mob and if you don't come out with a resolve to reconcile, then someone excised your emotional and intellectual wherewithal before you even walked in. I hope Jenny Macklin gets to see it.

I loved this play, and I cannot, after all, adequately convey the emotion I experienced today in the QPAC Playhouse. My apologies for that to all involved, from its conception to its staging. This play deserves to win every mainstage theatre award going this year. We should expect to see it and similar stories more often. I doubt I will see anything better for some time.

Thank you to everyone for bringing the story to the stage, it shall be embroidered on the front of my little pocket of Australian treasures. 

[PS Brisbane theatre-goers, we need to embrace the standing ovation...just occasionally]