Pic: Prudence Upton.

Festivals, Reviews

Perth Festival Postcard 2: Bran Nue Dae, Black Ties, Anthem

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Bran Nue Dae is an iconic work of Indigenous West Australian theatre, and the first Aboriginal musical. It was first produced by Black Swan Theatre Company at Perth Festival in 1990, and was turned into a hugely successful film in 2010.

The show has now been remounted in a new touring production by the Opera Conference (and presented in Perth by WA Opera) with its original director Andrew Ross (who also founded Black Swan) at the helm, and features Ernie Dingo in the same role he played onstage thirty years ago (and in the film) as Uncle Tadpole.

The original production launched the careers of several famous Aboriginal stage artists, including Dingo, Leah Purcell and the recently deceased and sorely missed Ningali Lawford-Wolf. The cast of the film includes Indigenous Australian pop stars Dan Sultan and Jessica Mauboy, as well as leading Indigenous Australian actors including Dingo and Deborah Mailman, and white celebrities like Geoffrey Rush, Magda Szubanski and Missy Higgins. But the significance of the work goes far beyond the list of its various alumni (to which the names of some of the current cast will no doubt soon be added).

The show is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age road-trip rock/country/gospel/blues musical by composer-musician-playwright Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles. The action is mostly set in Broome, where Chi (who had Chinese-Japanese descent on his father’s side and was Scottish-Bardi-Nyulnyul on his mother’s side) was born and spent much of his life (he died in 2017). Many of the show’s songs have become part of the cultural fabric of Broome, and some the hymns Chi wrote (both for the show and separately) are often sung at Aboriginal funerals there.

The songs and dialogue of Bran Nue Dae are in English, pidgin and Nyul Nyul, one of the Indigenous languages of northwest Australia. The language is now listed on Wikipedia as being extinct after the death of its last fluent speaker in 1999, which lends an added poignancy to one of the most beautiful songs in the show, ‘Nyul Nyul Girl’. In fact there’s an undertow of sadness as well as righteous anger and sarcastic wit throughout the work, notwithstanding its ebullient crowd-pleasing surface. Personally I found the film version a little saccharine in this regard, but I was unexpectedly moved (as well as being irresistibly charmed) by the new touring production.

Bran Nue Dae really does have all the hallmarks of a perennial classic.

It’s playing in Perth at the recently restored but still comfortably down-at-heel Regal Theatre in Subiaco. The theatre’s art deco ambience and sense of history as a former cinema and popular music venue (hosting the likes of Slim Dusty and Johnny Cash back in its heyday) only add to the show’s charm. The production aesthetic is similarly welcoming and unpretentious, with a country band of five musicians tucked away in a back corner of the stage, a relatively small cast of seven lead performers and seven ensemble members, and simple but effective set and costumes (designed by Mark Thompson).

The stage replicates the much-loved and ramshackle Sun Pictures outdoor cinema in Broome. An appropriately warm glow of nostalgia hangs over proceedings, in keeping with the content of the show; but there’s also a clear sense that all was not sweetness and light, even in the halcyon days of change back in the late 60s when the action is set; and there’s an abiding sense that there’s still much work to be done in the area of Indigenous rights. As the show’s most famous song playfully yet pointedly puts it: ‘There’s nothing I would rather be/Than to be an Aborigine/And watch you take my precious land away!’

I won’t rehearse the plot here, as it’s familiar enough to anyone who’s either seen the film, or hundreds of other similar coming-of-age pastoral rom-com road-movies, plays or novels like it, going back at least as far as Shakespeare’s As You Like It or Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

Chi’s genius is to knowingly play on this (conscious or unconscious) familiarity in order to get under our skins (literally and metaphorically) with some gentle (and not-so gentle) messages about social justice for Aboriginal people, as well as the importance of remaining connected to land, language, culture and – above all – family. In the latter regard, the show manages to pull of the hat-trick of simultaneously tugging at the heart-strings and mocking stage conventions (including implausible coincidences and climactic reveals about who is related to whom) while also saying something profound about what ‘family’ really means.

Ultimately the success of all this depends on the cast, who are uniformly excellent under Ross’s relaxed and assured direction. Dingo is an enormously charismatic performer and wears his trademark role like a comfortable old shoe, while also managing to get away with plenty of profanities and sly digs at the expense of the rest of the story, the cast and the audience (who were mostly white, and included a fair number of school groups and old folks at the matinee, when I saw the show).

The show manages to pull of the hat-trick of simultaneously tugging at the heart-strings and mocking stage conventions

Relative newcomers Marcus Corowa and Teresa Moore are bursting with talent and charm in the lead roles as teenage lovers Willie and Rosie, and generate real chemistry between them. The other principal roles are all invested with appropriate levels of over-the-top bluster and genuine freshness, including Andrew Moran as the absurdly German missionary Father Benedictus, Danielle Sibosado and Callan Purcell as the hippy roadsters Marijuana Annie and her (equally absurdly German) boyfriend Slippery, and Ngaire Pigram as the put-upon, born-again Auntie Theresa, who appears like a shop-worn deus ex machina in the final Act, draws all the plot-strands together and ties them up in neat bow.

Last but not least, the seven youthful ensemble players bring great energy and individual personality to their ever-changing and necessarily sketchy roles, with choreographer Tara Gower crafting a pleasingly unpretentious but potent fusion of dance moves for them, drawn equally from popular, jazz and Indigenous traditions.

It’s probably clear by now that this show made its way into my own slightly jaded heart. Bran Nue Dae really does have all the hallmarks of a perennial classic. This production does it justice, by allowing it to speak and sing, without unnecessary updating or embellishments, but with all its sweetness, its sadness and its strength, about how some things – love and racism among them – just never seem to change.

*

This leads me to Black Ties, which is all about love, family and intercultural tensions. In fact some of the language and sentiments expressed in the show would be out-and-out racist in the mouth of a white character; but in the context of a show in which all the cast are Indigenous Australians or Maori (and which is created by a team of First Nations artists), the effect is mostly one of healthy self-mockery, though the mood is often edgy and sometimes downright dangerous – as should be the case with any satirical comedy worth its salt.

Pic: Jess Wyld.

The show also pushes the envelope a lot more than Bran Nue Dae in terms of how it was made, as well as in terms of content and theatrical form. It’s co-produced by Ilbijerri (Australia’s longest running First Nations theatre company, based in Melbourne) and Te Rehia Theatre (a Maori company based in Auckland), co-directed by Rachael Maza and Tainui Tukihawo (who are also those companies’ respective Artistic Directors), and co-written by John Harvey and Tukiwaho (who also plays a lead role in the show).

In terms of genre, Black Ties is an intercultural (and audience-immersive) wedding rom-com about an Aboriginal man and a Maori woman who decide to tie the knot, but agree to meet each other’s families first as a precaution. Sure enough, trouble ensues, as each family includes at least one key figure (the mother in one case, the father in the other) who objects to the marriage, ostensibly on the grounds of geography.

However, these objections soon reveal themselves to be motivated by deeper cultural and personal issues, including long-festering marital or generational conflicts within the respective families themselves. Indeed among the issues the play airs and grapples with are parenthood – especially fatherhood – as well as cultural, sexual and gender identity. All the male characters in the play acknowledge that they’ve had (or been themselves) absent fathers, and there’s a spectrum of sexuality either hinted at or overtly displayed, including at least one non-binary character (a powerhouse performance from Takapui actor and singer Brady Peeti).

The dramaturgy, staging and performances are all equally liberating. The first Act consists of short scenes that briskly introduce characters and situations, jump back and forth in time and place, and are unpredictably interrupted by a roving trio of musicians – musical director and composer Brendan Boney, sound designer Laughton Kora, and drop-dead singer, guitarist and percussionist Mayella Dewis – who also play minor but key roles in the show.

The dramaturgy, staging and performances are all equally liberating.

The dialogue is rapid-fire (as are the text messages and live video chats that pop up on a screen at the back of the stage), and the audience have to keep their eyes and ears on the alert so as not to miss a joke or a plot-point. There’s a standout turn from stage and screen veteran Jack Charles as Uncle Mick, expertly upstaging everyone else with sly grace whenever he appears; but there are also excellent anchoring performances from the rest of the cast on both sides of the Tasman.

The Kiwis include Tukiwaho as the wayward father Robert Tapuwera, Lana Garland as his unforgiving ex-partner Sylvia, Tuakoi Ohea as their corporate hotshot daughter Hera, and Tawhirangi Macpherson as her shy younger sister Tama-Girl; facing off against Mark Cole Smith as smooth Aboriginal consultancy expert Kane Baker (who wants to marry Hera). Lisa Maza plays his suspicious mother Ruth, Dalara Williams is his forthright sister Alethea, and Dion Williams is his happy-go-lucky best friend Jermaine.

Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a significant shift after interval in terms of the venue, the use of space and the role of the audience. It’s a thrilling theatrical reveal that serves to ratchet up the level of chaos as well as the dramatic stakes – although it does entail some dramaturgical and pacing issues, despite the valiant and often hilarious efforts of the performers.

The overall effect is to take things even closer to the edge in terms of irreparable breakdown between and within both families, while simultaneously reinforcing the show’s fundamental message of inclusiveness, tolerance and forgiveness. It’s a message that applies not just to the characters, but to the audience as well – no matter which side of the ditch (or colour divide) we come from.

*

While certainly not a First Nations work (the writers and director are all white), Anthem includes Indigenous actors and characters among its diverse cast, and deals with issues of race and nationhood as well as class, gender and sexuality. In comparison with Bran Nue Dae or Black Ties, however, it’s a much starker rendition of intersectional conflict; and there are no easy emotional consolations, dramatic resolutions or messages of reconciliation.

Anthem is a multi-authored and multi-plotted work of political theatre by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and composer Irine Vela, directed by Susie Dee and produced by Performing Lines in association with Arts Centre Melbourne. The show was conceived as a sequel to the same team’s similarly co-written and structured Who’s Afraid of the Working Class, which was originally produced by Melbourne Worker’s Theatre and staged at the Trades Hall in Melbourne in 1998.

However, if Who’s Afraid of the Working Class was written from a broadly unified Marxist perspective in response to the economic rationalism epitomised by the Victorian State Government of Jeff Kennett in the 1990s, then Anthem is a more fragmented post-Marxist reflection on the political, economic, social and cultural fallout from neo-liberalism and globalisation, including the rise of extremism, populism, polarisation and identity politics that’s currently sweeping the world.

Pic: Sarah Walker.

The playwrights weave together and occasionally superimpose four main plot-strands and situations, most of which take place (at least in part) on a city train in Melbourne at various times and locations. The effect is a little like watching the theatrical equivalent of a multi-narrative movie like Nashville, Pulp Fiction or indeed Lantana (which was scripted by Bovell and based on his play Speaking in Tongues).

‘7-11, A Chemist Warehouse…A Love Story’ by Melissa Reeves presents a troubled relationship between two casual workers, emotionally volatile Lisa (Erin Jean Norville) and temporary visa holder Loki (Sahil Saluja), who go on a gun rampage together after Loki is laid off. This leads to an unexpectedly hilarious hostage scene in a corporate boardroom that was one of the highlights of the show for me.

‘Terror’ by Patricia Cornelius brings together two women, owning-class Elaine (Maude Davey) and working-class Chi (Amanda Ma), who reconnect and find that the balance of power has shifted along with their economic circumstances, but that both are still oppressed by their husbands. This sense of enduring oppression is made even more palpable when juxtaposed with a young couple (Reef Ireland and Eva Seymour) whose playful antics on the train eventually give way to gendered violence.

The sheer ambition of Anthem necessarily stretches the seams of the work at times

‘Brothers and Sisters’ by Christos Tsiolkas is the most elaborate story in the show, involving a family of multiracial siblings – Jamie (Thuso Lewape), Joella (Carly Sheppard), Malik (Osama Sami) and Cam (Reef Ireland) – who’ve diverged from each other in terms of class and geography as well as sexuality. This story also has two branch-lines that riff on the same theme of intersectional contradictions: one involving a hardworking and aspirational older Greek couple, Athena (Maria Mercedes) and Tony (Tony Nikolakopoulos), on the same train; and the other a chance encounter on the Eurostar between Jamie and a white bourgeois progressive British student, Veronica (Norville), that opens and closes the show.

Last but not least ‘Uncensored’ by Andrew Bovell involves a chorus of commuters, and features a confrontation between a desperate young white working-class single mother (Eva Seymour) with a behaviourally disturbed (but invisible) young child and a non-white ‘authorised officer’ (Sami), that was for me the most gripping scene in the play. There’s also an Indigenous woman, Charity (Rusi Kaisila), who gets on and off the train to sing I Still Call Australia Home, collect money and challenge passengers who place conditions on “paying the rent”; and two other musicians (violinist Jenny M. Thomas and double bassist Dan Whitton) who haunt the train and accompany the action (and some of the songs) with Irene Vela’s sombre score.

The sheer ambition of Anthem necessarily stretches the seams of the work at times, and it suffers from the inherent weakness that afflicts most anthology structures, in which some stories are more dramatically fleshed out, while others feel more schematic. The ensemble cast however are collectively and individually strong, with outstanding performances from Sheppard as the defiant Joela, Norville as the deranged Lisa, Seymour as the desperate young mother, and Kaisila as the Indigenous busker; and Dee’s direction is assured in terms of pace and mood.

I couldn’t help feeling that the show was overproduced in terms of the staging.

Nevertheless I couldn’t help feeling that the show was overproduced in terms of the staging. Marg Horwell’s monumental two-storey set, Paul Jackson’s sculptural lighting design, and even Vela’s richly layered sound design and score, all seemed incongruously high-end as a frame for these essentially humble narratives. Perhaps this impression was enhanced by seeing it in the plush surrounds of the Heath Ledger Theatre, and patronised by a predominantly white middle class Perth Festival audience, who laughed comfortably at some of the most challenging or problematic moments in the show. As a friend and colleague remarked, it was as if they didn’t recognise themselves in the mirror that the work held up to them, or as the target for some of its most telling accusations.

Perhaps this says more about the audience than it does about the play or the production; but I wonder if some responsibility lies with how the show was framed. Somehow for all its breadth of vision as a panoramic portrait of Australian society and intersectional conflict between class, race, culture, gender and sexuality, Anthem still comes across as a work of middle-class theatre in comparison with the more rough-and-ready writing, performances and production of Who’s Afraid of the Working Class, which I saw at the Trades Hall in Melbourne 20 years ago.

Nor does the play address or implicate the audience as directly as does Bran Nue Dae or Black Ties – or even Hecate, which either linguistically excludes those who don’t speak Noongar or (in the case of Hecate Kambarnap) warmly embraces them. Perhaps this along with the production aesthetic explains the feeling of coldness emitted by the show in spite of the heat generated by the writing and performances. Ultimately the stories and characters felt somehow trapped by the framing as much as by their situations. But then again, perhaps this too was intentional, and reflects the pessimism of the work’s creators – and the critical nature of the situation we now find ourselves in.

Bran Nue Dae is at The Regal Theatre, Perth until March 1, and then on national tour till the end of August.

Black Ties was at the Studio Underground, Perth February 13-16, and is at the Arts Centre Pavilion in Melbourne until February 29.

Anthem was at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Perth February 12-16.

2 responses to “Perth Festival Postcard 2: Bran Nue Dae, Black Ties, Anthem

  1. A thoughtful and considered review of Anthem, Humphrey asking questions that we have also asked of ourselves. I’ve really enjoyed your coverage of the Festival as wasn’t able to be there this year. And to have Anthem placed in dialogue with the other plays was so interesting.

  2. Thanks Andrew! Greatly appreciated your comment. Dialogue is what it’s all about, isn’t it – between works, artists , cultures and communities, as well as with audiences and critics. Best, Humphrey

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