You never quite know where Stephen Page will go with a production. And I’ve a feeling, neither does he. His method seems to be organic. And it works. Of course, if you’re one of the country’s most distinguished indigenous artists, and bring on board colleagues of comparable calibre, you probably can’t go too far wrong. (Then again, Sydney Theatre Company’s Money Shots brings on board some of Sydney and Australia’s hottest young writers, but that show failed to climax.)
Bloodland seeks to evoke the unenviable no-man’s-land so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people find themselves trapped in; torn between the consumable trappings of the Western way and the ageless nobility of the almost unapproachably (for Balanda) sophisticated culture/s from which they derive. The concept is Page’s, one that had its first stirrings from a casual conversation between same and the then new artistic directors of STC, a few years ago. Based on fulfilling previous collaborations, Wayne Blair came in to the fray soon after, as well as cultural consultants Kathy Balngayngu Marika and Djakapurra Munyarryun. Both hail from Northeast Arnhemland, as do the Pages, and, thus, Page scratches for, and finds, some universal truth, through the medium of a specific culture, in his own, the Yolngu.
The cast, too, is an ensemble of some of our hottest and best performers. Singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and actor Elaine Crombie is Lalkal, one of the women of the camp. Promising young Bangarra star, Rarriwuy Hick, is Wak Wak, a girl coming-of-age. Rhimi Johnson Page, Galiku, a strapping young man. Kathy Balngayngu Marika plays the older woman, in constant conflict with her younger sisters. Noelene Marika is Gapu, promised to Billy, played by Kelton Pell, but loved by Runu (Hunter Page-Lochard). Banula Marika is Djurrpun, the songman; keeper of rites and secrets. When he performs, one feels privileged, even blessed, as if one is receiving some deep, arcane knowledge that one can’t translate, but which feels important and nourishing.
David Page, for mine up there with, say, Paul Grabowsky, as one of our most transcendent composers, here plays kava-connection, Bapi, and Donkey, the mangy dog. Tessa Rose is Bathala, another of the grounding women; the dynamic Meyne Wyatt is Gulami, another of the young men trying to keep face on both sides of the coin; the always luminous Ursula Yovich is Cherish, Runu’s deeply grieving mother, collecting mobile phones like her lost son’s, in a compensatory state of neurosis. I credit them all, as it’s a particularly uniform level of performance excellence Page has achieved, as director (Kirk Page, assistant director).
The floor of Wharf 1 is scarred by tracks, crisscrossing each other haphazardly. Peter England has struck a resonant chord with his design, which speaks to wholesale European carve-up of land not owned by them. Us. His metallic vines mimic the monsoonal forest one discovers in the Top End. A fence, substantially torn away, prompts feelings of containment, restraint, oppression, subjugation. And resistance. Thanks to complementary lighting by Damien Cooper, the stage, and atmosphere, is of dark places and spaces, oppositional the the intense brightness one encounters in the locale, either by long, hot day, or starry night, but reminiscent of the terrifying strangeness and fear that must pervade so many disrupted, tormented lives. Electricity flickers and fuses, igniting sparks at the top of the lean-to telegraph pole, which barely stands erect, as if in sympathetic, solitary resignation, like the people around it.
Cherish appears, emptying out her growing collection of mobiles, toying with them randomly, lost in time and her own thoughts. Her dog, Donkey, is her only companion, more faithful to her than the missions that came years ago, or government programmes that promise alleviation from poverty, better health and education. This electronic detritus, secondhand and useless, is all that remains of would be, if only, ‘well-meaning’ paternalism.
Despite the all-pervasive direness and desperation, Page points to the timeless grandeur and beauty through every choreographed gesture and movement. Even the way the ragged Donkey moves is sleek, stealthy, as lubricated and languid as fluid the big wet. Watching this work, one experiences an Aboriginal sense of time, in which one is allowed to be, rather than do. Page presents inaction, as well as action. He observes the negative spaces and sees something brilliantly positive. Something we routinely miss, as those spaces diminish, with every split-second usurped by iPhones and email.
We see the dedication of the men, young and old, their attempts to integrate European and indigenous experience and learning. Billy’s pain, as his whitefella university education is belittled and he’s cast out. Runu’s abject adolescent suffering, as he struggles to accept traditional law, though it flies in the face of the longing he feels for the already promised Gapu. Gulami’s intensity as he strives to pay respect to his heritage and not succumb to trinkets and temptation. No wonder they cave in to kava, offered mischievously by Bapi, who seems to have given up on it all, losing himself in narcotic delusion.
We are let in to funeral rites, smoking ceremony, body painting and scared songs. We witness the cathartic wailing of the women, which Yovich, in her ever-tuneful way, turns to music.
But Page wouldn’t be Page if, amidst all this, he didn’t surprise with a bitingly sarcastic vignette like the teacher, the bespectacled Mrs White, played so ironically by Crombie, stirring her indigenous students to a rousing rendition of the appalling anthem, Advance Australia Fair.
I keep referring to Page but, of course, the soberingly versatile Wayne Blair probably deserves as much credit. The effort seems so wholistic, collaborative and non-competitive though, that it’s hard to know where one person’s contribution ends and the next begins. It’s all for one. And one for all. We can watch, listen, and learn, from that alone. Bloodland will have the blood of this land coursing hotly through your cold, blue veins.