Coranderrk theatre review (Belvoir, Sydney)

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Coranderrk might sound like a word of Dutch derivation but it’s actually a word used by the Wurundjeri to describe a white “Christmas” bush native to their country, which is, or was, the area we now regard as Melbourne. The Aboriginal owners were dispossessed of their land in deference to the squattocracy. One of the first things the Melbourne-based Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Coranderrk throws up is the genocidal attrition of the Wurundjeri (and Kulin clans more broadly), a remainder of whom showed iron-willed resilience when in 1863, they established Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, which, in short order, upset the colonial applecart, piled high with stereotypes and odious falsehoods about ”the natives”.

If success is the best revenge, the Wurundjeri savaged their masters, by showing themselves to be self-determined and self-sufficient. They didn’t need whitefellas. Which is why, of course, Coranderrk was an experiment that couldn’t possibly be allowed to succeed. It ruffled the feathers of the status quo and threatened the whole notion of paternalism on which the colony. No wonder the story has been hush-hush. It’s certainly not one that’s been part of our education, even if it’s second nature to Aboriginal people right across Victoria. It seems the great divide isn’t a mountain range, after all. It’s a litany of secrets and lies.

Director Isaac Drandic has brought Coranderrk: We Will Show The Country to Sydney before but this is quite a different production, augmenting the entirely verbatim nature of the first with dramatic speculations. But his implied thesis remains: had Coranderrk been allowed to continue it might well have become a blueprint for collaborative, cooperative, white-black community enterprise. The alleviation that might’ve provided, in terms of disease, incarceration, death in custody, recidivism, alcoholism and other substance abuse, infant and adult mortality, health and educational outcomes, and on and on, can barely be contemplated, given the horrible realities that prevail. In this sense, Coranderrk leaves a rightfully unpalatable, bitter aftertaste. This is one of its key successes.

Verbatim theatre can be difficult to pull off, given its intrinsically dry disposition. This production draws heavily on evidence and testimony given in an 1881 inquiry into goings-on at Coranderrk. But, thanks to co-writers Andrea James and Giordano Nanni, a committed cast and  creatives, the actuality becomes more theatrical. Despite their best efforts, the drama tends to fade in and out, suffusing the text poignantly now, but flagging sometimes, as when, say, a long list of names is read. While this is a laudable way to honour Wurundjeri elders it can be a bit lost on the the audience. Coranderrk is exceptionally well-written but the integrity of the concept isn’t always matched on the boards.

Set and costume designers Ruby Langton-Batty and Ralph Myers appear to have had a reasonably easy time of it: for the most part, the actors seem to be wearing clothes they otherwise might; the only real feat of craftsmanship being the rustically exquisite possum-skin cloak. A makeshift swathe of dilapidated cloth, which looks a little like a worn sail is a backdrop for projections of photographs. Damien Cooper’s lighting indicates we’re in the realm of poetic licence; the ding-dong of a ship’s bell signals an abrupt leap into the unforgiving illumination of the inquiry, with witnesses under and on the spot. Ben Grant’s composition and sound design is so minimal as to be questionable: unobtrusive, to the point of ineffectual.

The performances are variable. At their best they are gut-wrenching. Foremost among these is Kate Beckett’s lapse into a quaking, weeping mess. One could see and feel the depth of her empathetic connection to the stories she was helping to tell. This, if you will, was ‘verbatim’ emotion, as authentic as anything else meticulously documented by the writers.

Sometimes the delivery sounded rote and even didactic, as if the writers and director had become a little too desperate to get every factual nuance and brushstroke across and in so doing forgot the larger canvas. The pace waxes and wanes, but no-one could mistake the sincerity of the ensemble, with the regal bass-baritone of Jack Charles at its heartfelt centre, as William Barak, last of the traditional Wurundjeri ngurungaeta.

Coranderrk is a vital story and with a little polish, it can also become a vital piece of theatre. Even as it, it’s compulsory viewing.

Coranderrk is at Belvoir Street Theatre until 3 January, 2014. Tickets are available at belvoir.com.au

Featured image by Patrick Boland

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