Stage

Postcard from Perth: Flood – racism and ritual

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Chris Isaac’s new play Flood is the first cab off the rank for Black Swan State Theatre Company in 2014.
More specifically, it’s the first of two Black Swan Lab productions in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre; it’s also the opening theatre production for Perth Fringe World Festival. Not surprisingly, therefore, the show sits across a number of fault-lines; in fact psychological, cultural, geographical, climatic and even tectonic instability are central themes in the play.
At this point it’s probably incumbent on me to declare that I’m a resident artist at Black Swan myself this year. Nevertheless, I hasten to add that I had nothing to do with Flood – so I feel I’m in a position to review and reflect on the show, which I think is an important new work on many levels, especially because of the issues it raises surrounding the representation of race and racism onstage (and by implication offstage as well).
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The ensemble cast of six were pre-set lounging or crouched in various positions and attitudes around a raised stage of artificial rock in the shape of roughly concentric ledges or terraces descending to a central pool, which filled up with water halfway through the show. A decade ago (when I arrived in Perth) it would have been orange pindan dust covering the floor: a sure sign that an unimpeachable work of ‘West Australian theatre’ was about to unfold. Now it was fake orange rock. I think the pindan was marginally more convincing. Certainly it was easier for actors to navigate, notwithstanding some subtle but effective (and, for the most part, convincingly inhabited and executed) choreography by movement director Danielle Micich, which helped to integrate the staging and action, and make the show a work of physical as well as verbal storytelling.
The characters (at least those who are visible and have a voice – about which more in due course) are six young white Anglo-Celtic middle-class urban hipsters (three boys and three girls) in their late teens or early twenties, who reunite for a road trip north and inland: a familiar rite of passage for anyone who’s grown up or had kids in Perth. The form is ensemble storytelling theatre – with direct address to the audience shared amongst the cast –alternating with flashes or scenes of dialogue, in sometimes uneasy juxtaposition. Nevertheless, the generic tropes that spring to mind are ones we associate less with theatre than film: in rapid succession, teen-movie morphs into road-movie, then tantalizes us with the prospect of caper-movie, slasher flick and (most promisingly of all from my point of view in terms of language and imagery) apocalyptic sci-fi, before finally settling into the group-crime/collective-guilt/shared-secret sub-genre familiar to anyone who’s ever seen Deliverance, River’s Edge, Jindabyne or even (to sink a little lower into the murky depths of pop culture) I Know What You Did Last Summer  – not to mention the movie that arguably got the ball rolling, John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
In the case of Flood, harnessing the ensemble-storytelling-theatre form to the group-crime/shared-secret sub-genre in order to ‘plough the field’ of white Australian collective guilt is a noble and ambitious enterprise that didn’t quite work for me. At first I was happy to go along with the superficial characterization and clichés of the teen-road-movie genre (complete with an almost non-stop cinematic soundtrack continually telling me – in case I had any doubt – what I was watching or how to respond). My attention was held partly because of some finely tuned and engaging acting, which gave colour and depth to the sketchy nature of the characters, but also because of a level of self-reflexive ‘meta-generic’ irony in the script (including a mocking reference to Cloudstreet as the tattered icon of West Australian fiction and theatre) which kept me in there with promises of a WA outback version of Wes Craven’s Scream (perhaps via the classic Ozploitation flicks of the 70s, up to and including Wolf Creek). And with the arrival of the group at a mysterious water-hole, ensuing late-night campfire intimations of unresolved group dynamics, some odd behaviour from a weird mob of neighbouring kangaroos, and a cataclysmic dust storm, I was feeling game for some outback atavism along the lines of Walkabout, Wake in Fright, The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock or even (at the tail-end of the meteor-storm of Australian independent cinema in the late 70s) the overblown mysticism of The Last Wave.
But then, about twenty minutes in, a crucial turning-point lost me for the rest of the show: the unexplained appearance (as if out of nowhere) of a nameless and essentially featureless Aboriginal man – barely described as barefoot, possibly drunk, speaking in an incomprehensible language and apparently insisting that the group vacate what is presumably a sacred waterhole (in which they are all frolicking naked). His featurelessness is so to speak ‘dis-embodied’ by the fact that – being an outsider and intruder in relation to the storytelling group – he doesn’t (and indeed can’t) actually appear or speak in person onstage. In other words, he is pure projection –the Other in its primordial negativity. This inherently unstageable encounter with something utterly unreal and insubstantial (like an all-too literal figuration of the archetypal Jungian Shadow) leads (likewise unstageably) to a violent confrontation, and then (once more unexplained and out of nowhere) the murder (with a hammer, no less) of the outsider/intruder by one of the group, Mike (again, well-acted but critically underwritten in terms of back-story or motivation).
The implausibility of this sequence of events is further ‘underwritten’, so to speak, by the fact that these apparently cool contemporary Perth groovers seem never to have interacted with or even met an Aboriginal person before – or even to be able to decide what to call ‘them’ (stumbling over the political correctness or otherwise of the term ‘indigenous’, seemingly unable to even articulate the word ‘Aboriginal’, and relying instead on a grating repetition of the generic pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ for the rest of the play) – let alone demonstrate any understanding or even awareness of the most elementary cultural protocols. Added to this unlikeliness is that of a contemporary Aboriginal person physically attacking a group of white people for desecrating a sacred site (or indeed for any other reason) – one thinks for example of the astonishing forbearance shown by traditional owners towards tourists who chose to climb Uluru (not to mention all the other offences, intentional or otherwise, daily heaped on past injuries) – let alone the unlikeliness of a young white urban tourist responding by killing his indigenous attacker with a hammer.
This fatal turning-point was nonetheless skilfully navigated by the actors (Adrienne Daff giving a fearless and forthright performance as Frankie, the principal cultural offender) – although unnecessarily underscored by the soundtrack and illustrated by the set in what might be a called a pathetic fallacy of staging and design, with the pool at the centre of the rocks beginning (a little noisily on opening night) to slowly fill up with water. The Biblical invocation in the script at this point of some kind of mysterious subterranean upheaval (‘and the rocks were rent asunder’) further emphasized the Christ-like nature of the sacrifice. In place of any compelling or convincing social or psychological motivation, a theological rite was enacted. This was no longer theatre – where the suspension of disbelief is maintained in the fully enlightened consciousness of fictional representation – but the ritualized performance and unconscious re-enactment of pure myth.
From here on until the end of the play, things played themselves out with an almost mechanical sense of inevitability in terms of the writing, if not the acting – from generic acts of emotional blackmail and sexual betrayal by the group leader Sal (convincingly inhabited by Will O’Mahony) to a final paroxysm of suicidal guilt by the perpetrator, Mike (played with a touching innocence by Josh Brennan). Here at least the set design at last paid off with the beautiful, pre-Raphaelite if typically fatalistic image of Mike floating face upwards in the water like Millais’s Ophelia. Yet once again neither the beauty of the image nor the honesty of the performance could convince me of the act itself as an authentic ending to the play.
What is the distinctive nature of racism here in Australia – and more specifically, racism towards Aboriginal people – both in the past and now, today? How does it reach down into the souls of individual men and women, white and black? Why can’t we ask this question without resorting to anthropological, mythical or theological ideas and fantasies about sacrifice – a label which is as inappropriate and offensive when applied to the genocide of Aboriginal people as it is when applied to the genocide of the Jews? Why do we find it so difficult to put Aboriginal people onstage as people rather than as projections or stereotypes – that is, when we allow them onstage at all? Instead of fatalistic images and narratives of endless conflict and violence, why do we find it so difficult to represent, achieve or even broach the subject of reconciliation in this country, for past and present injustices perpetrated against Aboriginal people and culture? Why do we continue to trade in guilt – and in so doing, to repeat those very injustices, even with the best of intentions (with which, as we know, the road to hell is paved)?
Once again, I think of Sean Tan’s Stick Figures in Tales from Outer Suburbia, and the Aboriginal people and families – the kids and couples and parents and grandparents – who are my neighbours in the suburb where I live: those I say hello to at the bus stop or on the street, and those I walk past and ignore or avoid. I think of the elders and artists and leaders I admire, and those whose authority I question. I think of the Aboriginal people I’ve worked with or know, and whom I think of as colleagues or friends; and I think of the encounters I’ve had with Others – anonymous shadows onto whom I too have projected my own fears and desires. And the more I think about them, all these people, all these shifting categories, the more I feel that in the end there’s no difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ – white, Anglo-Celtic or any other category of Australians or others, however defined; that in the end your skin, or your culture, or your language, or where you come from, make no difference to me; that we’re all just people, brothers and sisters, with more in common that whatever divides us; and that it’s not really ‘race’ that divides us, because there’s really no such thing. It’s simply class, power and politics.
[box]Flood is at Studio Underground until 2 February. Tickets are available at bsstc.com.au
Featured image by Gary Marsh.[/box]

One response to “Postcard from Perth: Flood – racism and ritual

  1. I’m confused, I have no idea what the critic of this play is talking about or if he is talking at all. May be I’m not the audience he wants to impress if impress is the right word (all though I think that he is) I can’t help getting the idea that may be he didn’t like the play, he certainly didn’t convey any real feeling to me but then may be I’m not the academic audience I should be!

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