This is the most profound piece of black theatre that I’ve ever seen in this country, and I don’t say that lightly. It’s a play that no white person would have dared to write, because it’s about such sensitive matters as what constitutes Aboriginality, black-on-black prejudice and ultimate reconciliation, what country really means, and whether there is such a thing as an Aboriginal nation.
Those are weighty enough matters in their own right, but it’s more than that, too. It soars to universal heights, and forces us to think about the necessity of forming communities to sustain and protect us, and of how, when it comes down to the wire, we need other people to help us survive, no matter how different they are.
The production notes say that the concept was inspired by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but I think it goes deeper than that, into the roots of 20th century alienation. It’s as bleakly existential as anything dreamed up by Samuel Beckett or Jean-Paul Sartre or T.S. Eliot 60 years ago. Fourteen Aboriginal people find themselves, we know not how, in the middle of a hostile desert, where there is no food, water or shelter. They’re all from different mobs, and have nothing in common with each other. Some want to deny their Aboriginality; one young man, who looks whiter than white, desperately wants others to accept his Aboriginality; some have always lived all their lives on country; some are educated; and others rely on their natural wits to survive. We love some, we hate some, we laugh with (not at) some, we pity others, and we all despise the great brute of a man who tries to force his will on them all.
What they all have to learn is that, in extremity, neither class nor origin or culture can save us. We must pull together, share our resources and our wisdom and become a community, and that’s a lesson for everyone, white, black or brindle.
Solemn stuff indeed, but it’s much more than a stern moral treatise. It’s full of fun and laughter and dance, and of our connexion to the past, because above the 14 survivors in the desert are two ghostly figures, the spirit of the ancestors, who seem to guide and protect the living beings.
And as they gradually come to trust one another and to share their meagre belongings — some sticks, a knife, a few pieces of clothing — they become a community who learn that they must protect, support and eventually love each other.
There are some uplifting sequences, such as when the men (because although the group often act together, the sanctity of secret men and women’s business is strictly adhered to) teach the white look-alike Mickey (Jayden Stubbs) to learn the emu dance, and then all teach each other dances from their own cultural groups. This was foot-stamping uplifting heroic stuff, and deserved its raucous round of applause.
When Polly (Kaleenah Edwards) is brutally raped by the evil Coyote (Angus Jones) in the desert, she stumbles back to camp and is healed by all the women, even those who did not at first accept her, and when Coyote is dragged before the community to answer for his crimes, the impressive woman called Justice (Jakaya Dixon) insists that it must be Polly who passes sentence — which she does, in a totally satisfying way.
Spirit of the Lore has a cast of stars, and although not all the actors are of the same standard, the energy and belief they put into their performances makes it a piece of world significance. It deserves to go on tour — the festival circuit, perhaps, and as far as Edinburgh and Europe. Oh, that a farsighted entrepreneur could underwrite such an enterprise.
And I’ve left the best until last, because this is a student production, devised and written by the participants themselves. The Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts does a superb job in providing opportunities for young indigenous actors, and usually (when they stick to themes that are close to their hearts, rather than classics like last year’s Romeo and Juliet, over which a permanent veil should be draw) they come up with something all of Australia can be proud of. Congratulations to everyone concerned, including the staff whose input helped shape the show, and the inspired direction of Rob Doran.
The details: Spirit Of The Lore plays the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until September 19. Tickets on the festival website.