REVIEW: Beautiful One Day | Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
Three theatre companies recapitulate one of the most important stories of our recent past in Beautiful One Day at Sydney’s Belvoir St. It’s not without flaws, but it’s pretty deadly.
Beautiful One Day, like other work from Version 1.0, as my perspicacious companion observed, almost requires a whole new set of criteria and tools for reviewing theatre, given its docudramatic style reinvents the medium so comprehensively. It’s a wonder we didn’t think of it before. And a pity, since it has as much to offer educationally as theatrically. Version 1.0 demonstrates, time and again, that contemporary issues can be discussed and dealt with in a very direct way and prove riveting, as well as deeply affecting.
Version 1.0 has the benefit of two co-production partners for Beautiful One Day, in Belvoir and Ilbijerri. Under ordinary circumstances, this might be a recipe for clashes of visions, egos and personalities, yet this tripartite model has generated something which might be construed to resemble a socialist ideal, brought to life through theatre practice, for there’s no writer and no director. BOD is living proof that consultation, collaboration and mutual respect can really work. It’s a radically leftist concept, but maybe the rest of us should try it sometime.
I haven’t been to Palm Island, but everything I’ve seen, heard or imagined recommends it as an idyllic tropical paradise. Perhaps the nearest thing I have to compare it with are the Tiwi Islands, which I’ve visited a number of times. But while, to the best of my knowledge, whitefellas have substantially left the Tiwi Islanders to their own devices until such time as they wanted to profit from their distinctive culture, our approach to Palms hasn’t been nearly so benign. (In the Tiwi neck of the woods, it’s hard to forget a telling story of ignorance and prejudice that occurred very early on February 19, 1942; the day the Japanese bombed Darwin to devastation. The head of the mission up there had radioed Darwin to say the natives had become restless, claiming to have spotted Japanese planes flying in the direction of the mainland. The authorities in Darwin, however, laughed off the silly blackfellas estimations. About an hour later, men were running from showers, starkers, to man anti-aircraft guns.)
We’ve, regrettably, done more than merely ignore, or overlook, Palms. We’ve been hands on. Particularly in November, 2004, when an Aboriginal man died in custody. But in this case, it wasn’t quite so easy to sweep under the carpet. Palm Islanders are a proud and defiant people. They didn’t take this event lying down. They formed a resistance and protested for a week. Police characterised this as a riot. Well, they would. History shows how quickly, tightly and effectively ranks close around an accused officer. Blood, the colour red, is thicker than water. And the colour blue is thicker still.
Beautiful One Day has this convulsive, seminal event at its heart, but uses it to paint a much broader, contextualised picture of Palms and, to some extent, Aboriginal Australia at large. In a sense, Palms might be seen as a microcosmic example, a laboratory if you will, of what can happen when a people, a culture, a society, a civilisation, is invaded and overrun by another. As such, it becomes emblematic of European-Australian history and the afflictions it has brought.
There are many contributors to BOD and each and every one has brought something worthwhile and special to the production. Devisor and audiovisual designer Sean Bacon provided a backdrop of sometimes talking, sometimes silent heads: Palm people showing themselves to be soberingly wise, thankful (and for what?!), gracious and generous. A man who’d clearly suffered throat cancer (despite the discomfort, inconvenience and ignominy of having to communicate via a device attached to a laryngeal catheter, the fact he’d not a cent to his name and that he’d been an alcoholic) counted his blessings and told us how much better off he was than so many others. As he recognised, he could go and catch a feed anytime and, since not many people visit the island, it remains a sanctuary for the soul. Similarly, a woman told us she thanked God for the late Cameron Doomadgee (otherwise known as Mulrunji), for all the people of PI, all Aboriginal people and all Australians.
I, for one, found this largeness of spirit deeply humbling, particularly in the face of systematic genocide. There’s a young man who mourns the loss of culture amongst children, through connection to the mainland. People like this are as much the stars and protagonists of BOD as the cast (and crew). Speaking of which (to mention at least a few), Aunty Magdalena Blackley is a cultural consultant, co-devisor and performer. Her contribution in the first capacity has no doubt been invaluable: she’s lived on PI most of her life and has held office there. Though she’s been very much involved in the arts, I’m not aware of any particular resume as an actor or other performer but, suffice to say, if she’s an absolute beginner she’s an absolute natural: hers was one of the most self-assured performances. Kylie Doomadgee is just a few years out of ACPA (the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts), but already boasts a fierce, commanding energy that ensures one’s fullest attention. Fans of Version 1.0 will, I expect, vividly recall Paul Dwyer’s idiosyncratic performance in the The Bougainville Photoplay Project, which he also wrote, from the heart and his own life experience. He reprises his eccentric self in this production, which is, again, disarming. He’s also a co-devisor. Eamon Flack (Belvoir’s erstwhile associate director) wasn’t seen on stage, but had a definite, if not downright definitive influence behind the scenes, as co-devisor. Ruby Langton-Batty’s rectangular, ‘floating’ island, upholstered with what looked like a smattering of tenacious buffalo grass and some sand, is evocative of paradise lost. And the use of a side wall as a genealogical diagram innovative. The multifaceted, multitalented Rachael Maza is also credited as devisor and, of course, shone as radiantly as you might expect, based on past form, as a performer. Like Blackley, Doomadgee and Maza (whose father Bob was born on Palms), Harry Reuben is the real deal. He lives and works on PI, where he’s involved in numerous community programmes. There’s no way, on the evidence, you’d pick him as an outright theatre novice, but he is. Very promising. Centrelink, for whom he works, might well have to forfeit him for an acting career.
Having paid these tributes (and their are still others I haven’t discussed), the real strength is collective, not individual. Similarly, as much as BOD is an awareness-raising exercise as regards the terror of a central incident in the recent past, it looks to causes and repercussions. It not only presents Palms as almost an island nation in its own right (with a collective consciousness and conscience that’s remarkably free and independent, despite interference and oppression), but highlights the right of all Aboriginal nations to respect, dignity, equity and justice. It’s a broader story that can’t be told too many times, lest we forget. Again. There was the ’67 referendum. Native title. Walks for reconciliation. The apology. Every so often there are, at least, signs and symbols of white Australia’s contrition and desire to make amends, if amends can be made. But for every sign and symbol, there are lapses, in which amnesia seems to set in. While it prevails, this isn’t and can never be a nation that’s truly free, let alone civilised. It’s a shame it needs to be reiterated.
Murundji, let’s face it, didn’t assault a police officer. He, allegedly, insulted one, singing Who Let The Dogs Out, while walking down the street. For his trouble, he sustained fatal injuries, according to a medical examiner, consistent with a head-on collision or plane crash. His liver was cleaved in two, by his spine. That’s a pretty bad fall.
These three companies and all involved are to be congratulated for recapitulating one of the most important stories of our recent past. While it’s by no means a flawless production (uncertainty seems to prevail during the first half, but it was opening night and perhaps there were mutual notes during interval because, after that, both rhythm and precision were really nailed), it’s a vital one, in every sense. It’s good enough to stand on its theatrical merits alone, but it would be precious and pretentious to avoid political discussion.
All in all, it’s deadly.
The details: Beautiful One Day plays Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre until December 23. Tickets on the company website.