Drama Theatre, September 15
The birds are singing blithely and the scorching January sun glistens on what we now call Sydney Harbour. The heat apart, all would be well with the world, were the news from Kamay (Botany Bay) not so disconcerting. Nawi – boats – have arrived, again; huge, as tall as trees, like the ones that came 18 years earlier, only this time there are 11 of them. What does it mean? What do they want? Should they be driven off or welcomed?
Jane Harrison’s exceptional play is set in Warrane (Sydney Cove), as six elders and the young emissary of a seventh – representing seven clans of the Eora nation – gather to debate what to do about what we now call the First Fleet. Since The Visitors premiered at 2020’s Sydney Festival, Harrison has adapted it into a novel and revised it as a play, so now two characters are played by female actors, and more local language permeates the text.
Wesley Enoch directs this joint production between Sydney Theatre Company and Moogahlin Performing Arts, the strong cast headed by Luke Carroll as Gordon, an elder of the land on which they gather, and the one most inclined towards bellicosity. Late in the play we learn why, and Carroll is supreme at delivering this slice of personal history from Cook’s 1770 visit.
Harrison condenses time to suit her dramatic needs, so as the meeting progresses the ships approach, the initial three becoming the full 11 before the 75-minute play is over. At first only Wallace (Dalara Williams) is disinclined to shoo the strangers away, but gradually the consensus unravels, and the numbers swing towards welcome, amid group dynamics vaguely reminiscent of the vacillating jurors in Twelve Angry Men.
Elizabeth Gadsby’s striking set of a sandstone outcrop renders these shifting dynamics in three dimensions, as Enoch moves the actors between being higher and lower in relation to one another, as well as closer to or further from the audience, at which they gaze as they watch the approaching fleet.
They are horrified to witness a hanging, confirming their worst fears about the sorts of brutes on board. Before that Joseph (Kyle Morrison) has related how, during the visit of 18 summers earlier, his mob had all their spears stolen by the visitors. “I can’t even explain the concept of permanently borrowing,” he says, his language having no word for theft.
But there are protocols to be observed. Unless they clearly intend harm, visitors to country must be welcomed, shown hospitality and healed if they are sick – and how could these people not be sick, cooped up and desperate for water? Besides, as Gary (Guy Simon), the chair of the meeting, points out, “Visitors don’t stay. That’s why they’re called visitors.” This is backed up by Jaky (Elaine Crombie), who is adamant that the pull of their own country must surely be too strong to keep them here.
Joseph Wunujaka Althouse and Beau Dean Riley Smith complete the cast, the characters, as specified in Harrison’s text, dressed in suits, emphasising the formality of the gathering. To this end, the ensemble acting could be more restrained early on, and take longer to flare into full-blown anger.
Perhaps, too, some of Harrison’s dodgy jokes could be jettisoned (“curiosity killed the echidna”), but ultimately this is a visceral production of an important play: one that presents the version of a pivotal moment in this nation’s history that wasn’t documented – just as we approach another pivotal moment.
Until October 14.