The bigness of the world is announced in a bright arc of red paint, or blood, flung across a clear vinyl screen. At 14 years of age, the boy has just started work at the Portland abattoir. He tells them he’s 16. They know his family needs the money, so no-one asks any questions. With dad gone, he’s the man of the house. Adult responsibility looms large amid the split carcasses and piles of trimming. It will be many years — and much adventure — before he really understands what it means.
Walking into the Bigness is the life story of Richard Frankland, playwright, musician and proud Gunditjmara man. And it’s terrific theatre: a tale of emotional and moral growth, rich in incident and feeling, smartly put together and highlighted by some very fine, very big performances.
It’s Frankland’s story, of course, but directors Wayne Blair and Chris Mead seem equal partners. This is very much director’s theatre, where form and content are folded in together. Our engrossment owes as much to the upbeat music, the stage razzle and the constant movement of bodies as it does to the drama of the text.
There are five Richard Franklands, played by indigenous and non-indigenous performers, male and female. The idea is that we could all be a Richard Frankland, or at least that his journey of self-discovery is universal. Now he is Paul Ashcroft, now Rarriwuy Hick. One minute Tammy Anderson, the next Tiriki Onus or Luisa Hastings Edge, each jumping in and out, with different aspects and emphases. Meanwhile, the real Frankland looks on from the back of the stage, where, guitar in hand, he and Monica Weightman offer a meandering musical accompaniment.
His quiet but conspicuous presence does a lot to guarantee the authenticity of the production, anchoring the spectacle in something real.
After the abattoir, Frankland joins the army where he learns the limits of comradeship in the face of prejudice. He comes to rely on and enjoy his own strength, the lean body and quick fists. Then, after an honourable discharge — “my head was a mess” — he works the trawlers, fishing Bass Strait, braving wild weather and soaking in the oceanic majesty. Later he tries his hand as an apprentice glazier, then a steel cutter. Different places, different jobs, but racism is constant, and with it comes anger and shame, which his impulse to violence exaggerates.
Props are plentiful, but the set, designed by the three sisters Hayes, is basic: a station wagon on top of the flat roof of a modest house. It’s a symbol for a man who travels widely, but always remembers home.
The hardest, best job of Frankland’s life was as an investigator with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Those difficult years spent interviewing grieving families, visiting prisoners and wrestling with his own suicidal urges are only briefly touched on here. Perhaps this is because the terror and frustration of that experience was more thoroughly explored in his earlier work, Conversations with the Dead. Here there is more light and hope: an uplift linked to the bright harmonies and simple melodies of popular country music.
After the commission, Frankland continues to pursue his documentary vocation. The emphasis is on the importance of agitation and political protest. Oscar Wilde’s Soul of Man Under Socialism is quoted twice, via High Court Justice Lionel Murphy. Without agitators, there would be no advance towards civilisation.
Righteousness does drift occasionally into hokum. During a description of Frankland’s trip to the Middle East, where he spent time interviewing Palestinian children, he suggests an equivalence between the Second Intifada and his “own war”. It’s a boast that would have fallen flat even without the gory enormity of the current crisis in the Gaza Strip being so much with us.
The self-conscious sifting for universal wisdom does lead to a fair bit of platitude, but the entertainment is so well built you barely notice, or, noticing, forgive. The mix of epic and melodrama, narration and representation is brilliant. And even if you’re unfamiliar with Frankland’s work, the whole cast radiates such convincing admiration and fondness that it’s hard not to be swept along by the smiles.
Luisa Hastings Edge and Paul Ashcroft are particularly good, but the cast is truly led by Tiriki Onus. He has the nearest physical resemblance to Richard Frankland and could easily have taken on the role by himself if this had been a different sort of production. He has the same bearish swagger as Frankland and a voice capable of filling any theatre. He brings the show to an ecstatic climax with a booming rendition of — of all things — “California Dreamin'”.
As an older version of Frankland, returning home, despairing at the loss of traditional lore, the ideals of kinship and community, Onus adds new, utterly compelling layers of pain and frustration to the shimmery pop. It’s an unexpected but strangely apt anthem for the combinations of humour, fury, pride, hope, sadness and resolve represented in this memorable work of biographical theatre.