Conversations with the Dead by Richard Frankland. Company Belvoir B directed by Wesley Enoch at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, till August 31, 2003, 8pm.
I have been waiting for many decades for an Australian play which would hit dead centre. David Williamson tries, but even his recent therapeutic Conversations are too neat for reality. Louis Nowra and Alma de Groen get near at times. Last year I thought Adam Cook's version of Patrick White's novel The Aunt's Story was very close to the guts of the big dramas like Sophocles' Antigone, Shakespeare's King Lear, or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
I'm not talking academic airy-fairy bullshit here. I'm talking about plays that churn you up because you know that at any time you are as vulnerable as Antigone, who only wanted to do the right thing by her dead brother, or Willy Loman, whose life in this world full of salesmen was only hype and self-advertisement, with no life at all once you are 'past it'.
I'm talking about what Dean Carey said at the launch of a new book Don't Tell Me, Show Me by Adam Macaulay (Currency Press) in which directors talk about acting: "If I'm going to spend three hours of my time in a theatre I want to be shown something extra-ordinary". [please keep the hyphen]
The key to why Conversations with the Dead is extraordinary lies in both the writing and the staging. Frankland, writing out of his direct experience as a researcher for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, has found a voice in poetry, music, and the character of Jack, played with remarkable emotional and physical energy by Wayne Blair.
As Jack struggles against his own demons, including the ingrained sense of inadequacy which the past 200 years has injected into Aboriginal people, he asks questions of himself which we all ask of ourselves when faced with a seemingly impossible task. We see him, in a clifftop scene reminiscent of King Lear's inviting the storm to destroy him, face up to the images and voices of the dead whose spirits are borne in the harsh calls of black crows and the unpredictable power of the wind so near to blowing him away.
Enoch's direction, working with young designer Ralph Myers and top actors Luke Carroll, Elaine Crombie, Lillian Crombie and Rachael Maza, turns every ordinary action, word and prop, every shadow, every light, into an extraordinary symbol of Jack's despair: a piece of rope, a power cord, football socks, a knife, and pistol bullets carefully made to stand up before one is chosen to go in the chamber.
But, unlike the usual tragic characters, Jack does not die. He is still here, as the Aboriginal people are still here, and he wonders about other people leading their ordinary lives - he wonders about us - and what we would do if we knew all that he knows about the 99 deaths he investigated, the other 25 deaths up to 1989 the Commission decided not to investigate, the deaths rising from 11 in 1991 to 19 in 2001, and the deaths still happening in custody today. If we knew, as he says, "all that every Koori knows".
So Frankland's play, now trimmed taut by Wesley Enoch, is the central Australian tragedy I have been seeking. Rather than feeling sorry for Jack, however, we are forced to see the tragedy in ourselves. As Lear understands his role in the death of his favourite daughter Cordelia; as Linda Loman sees all the human forces, including her own attitudes, which have made Willy kill himself; so we know that we have failed Jack's people.
Jack faces the truth, learns at last who he is, and is not afraid to converse with the dead. Can the rest of us do at least as much as Edgar advises at the end of King Lear: "The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say."
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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