Drama Theatre, July 27, until August 25


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Melissa Jaffer and Wayne Blair. Photo: Heidrun Lohr.

The giant sand-coloured backdrop flies up and billows in ways that suggest the very land is breathing. Certainly the warm heart of H Lawrence Sumner’s play is, despite The Long Forgotten Dream often being at its strongest when it at its most epic or ritualistic – a ritual for leading us back towards the light of truth, acknowledgement, forgiveness and reconciliation. But its balance between the epic and the domestic, the dreaming and the prosaic, has not been fully resolved.

Just as the backdrop shape-shifts, so does Sumner’s story. On the surface it tells of the repatriation of the remains of King Tulla from England to Coorong, South Australia. Tulla (Ian Wilkes), the grandfather of Jeremiah (Wayne Blair) and great-grandfather of Simone (Jada Alberts) was murdered in a race-hate crime, and his body sold off like a hunting trophy. Simone has spent two years tracking down his bones so they can be buried where they belong.

Beneath that surface seethe other stories. Not all feelings kindled by this prospective homecoming are positive, especially for Simone’s father. Sumner’s Jeremiah exemplifies how one emotional blockage can lead to a general emotional logjam. The unpicking of this – lifting a scab on decades of grief, anger, guilt and frustration – swells the play to its climactic scenes.

When it hits those scenes it is mighty, as is Blair’s performance. In the earlier going some of the dialogue, especially between Jeremiah and Simone, is overwritten: words spoken that could have more effectively been left unsaid, obliging the audience to connect the dots.

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Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Photo: Heidrun Lohr.

Perhaps this overwriting – along with the challenge of depicting emotional gridlock – contributes to an archness in Blair’s performance early on, before it rears up in potency, and becomes not only more convincing, but also moving and memorable. Alberts’ character, an archaeologist, has no such trajectory, and her excessively flat delivery throughout, at odds with the character’s warmth, keeps us at a distance that undermines the play’s interrelationships.

Ningali Lawford-Wolf has no such trouble in making the blood and good humour course through Lizzie, Jeremiah’s rather more rounded and reconciled sister, who once had a fling with Henry Gilles (Justin Smith), a descendant of those who murdered Tulla and a comical pastor in the Jane Austen tradition.

A tender late-play scene between Blair and Lawford-Wolf is a highlight, as is another between Blair and Melissa Jaffer as Gladys, the white woman with whom Tulla had an affair that should have become a marriage – had circumstances allowed. Jaffer’s scenes – as a ghost benevolently stalking Jeremiah – are some of the most enchanting, with Sumner’s writing excelling in both wit and lyricism when unshackled from the ringbolts of naturalism. Wilkes’s Tulla is a silent presence until his repatriation, while Nicholas Brown offers an amusing turn as Mandeep, a British academic whose lecture on Tulla’s bones catapults us into the second half.

Carrying traces of Cloudstreet, director Neil Armfield’s fingerprints (in this STC production) are most obvious in the staging’s fluid choreography and in such enthralling ritualistic elements as the burial. Yet even he struggles to solve the conundrum of presenting domestic father/daughter and daughter/aunt scenes on the Drama Theatre’s letterbox stage, without the conversations seeming wide-angled and the characters remote from each other.

At least as compelling as Jacob Nash’s dazzling design is William Barton’s score, performed live by the composer. He magnifies the epic sweep, deepens the ritual, and glues together this discourse between generations and cultures; one that ends on a note of hope, despite political realities suggesting we’re still a long way from reaching that light.