Holy Day by Andrew Bovell. Sydney Theatre Company, The Playhouse, Canberra, September 30 - October 4, 2003
Recently Prime Minister Howard announced that he was no longer being asked to say "sorry". National Sorry Day Committee co-chair Audrey Kinnear responded, "He has shown he hasn't got the heart to do it. So we'll wait till we get another prime minister who has got a heart."
The Sydney Theatre Company production of Holy Day by Andrew Bovell comes to Canberra at the end of this month. Watching it at The Wharf in Sydney I wondered, Is this a black arm-band I see before me? On the one hand, yes - but on the other hand this dark drama is much more elemental than an intellectual discussion about the left-wing anti-imperialist view of our history as opposed to the right-wing denial of an Aboriginal holocaust.
Whatever it is, this production is a heartfelt tour de force for Pamela Rabe as Nora, the proprietor of an early 1800's outback Travellers Rest "halfway from where they come from and halfway to wherever they're going", leading a quality ensemble. The elements of flooding rains, drought and everlasting distance, invoked in true Dorothea Mackellar fashion, are forces of immediate impact out of which twisted, damaged, even bizarre characters are formed. Dry misshapen souls, like weird mallee roots, are contrasted with the dangerous play of light on the waterhole. "Do you think the people in England can imagine a sky like this?" asks Goundry (Steve Le Marquand), murderer and paedophile.
The forces which bind and destroy white and black, far more than mere prejudice or even the simple need for economic survival, are represented in symbolic characters. The stolen Aboriginal child (Natasha Wanganeen), named Obedience by her love-starved God-less Irish "mother" Nora. The missionary's wife Elizabeth (Belinda McClory), so God-obsessed that she creates black chaos in this isolated universe. The boy Cornelius (Abe Forsythe) stolen and used by the fiend Goundry. Epstein (Mitchell Butel), an honest but wandering Jew. The right-thinking sheep farmer Wakefield (Anthony Phelan) who in the end knows he cannot stop the massacre down by the river. An Aboriginal woman Linda (Kyas Sherriff) who confesses a lie, like Joan of Arc, and like St Joan can only retract it through suicide.
And then there is Elizabeth's missing white child, so reminiscent of Azaria Chamberlain - a mystery at the heart of Australian experience, with no satisfactory conclusion. Without a body, as Wakefield tells Elizabeth, we will never know the truth.
Towards the end, before her own body is added to the toll, Obedience tells us the number of bodies down by the river on Holy Day. Should we be sorry? Should we say "sorry"?
Bovell's play perhaps suffers a little from too much heart, tending towards melodrama rather like plays from the 19th Century in which Holy Day is set. Emotional strings are pulled, but for the purpose of creating a new understanding of the effects of privation and extreme poverty on the white "pioneers" with their absolute inability to appreciate the strength of the surrounding black society which knew how to live, rather than just survive, in the Australian environment. Are we to blame these people who are shown to be so destructive of their own, let alone Aboriginal, society.
Holy Day could be seen as Bovell's attempt to write the Australian equivalent of Arthur Miller's American classic The Crucible. Although, in my opinion, Bovell is not as great a craftsman as Miller, and he doesn't have available the same sort of well-known historical event as the Salem witchcraft trials to use in the service of raising our modern consciousness, he has created a similar sense of panic when social norms break down.
Acting out these panic stricken characters would not be easy, one would think. I spoke to young Pitjantjatjara woman Natasha Wanganeen (also in Rabbit Proof Fence), the widely experienced Anthony Phelan and mother-figure (backstage as well as in the play) Pamela Rabe and found that, despite the complications of plot and the proliferation of themes, Bovell's delineation of the characters give them each a clear guide. In working through the convoluted details of events in the first week of rehearsals, they discovered why each character tells lies or deliberately withholds the truth at each point.
It is the story of the lost child which becomes the central spine of the drama, but, they explained, each character has his or her own unrelenting demands, however twisted their motivation, which propel each actor on to the bitter end.
Bitter for the characters, maybe, but not so for Natasha playing Obedience. On first reading the script she wondered if she could cope with the horror of her character's story, but is now proud of her role in representing the truth of her people's experience, and pleased that a white writer has been able to understand. For all the actors the play represents a commitment to exposing the lie in Wakefield's admonishment to Elizabeth "You and I will be silent about what has passed. For what is not spoken will eventually fade". They believe the truth must be spoken because only then can we all be reconciled to our past history and to each other across classes and cultures.
The strength of the play as Natasha sees it is that the story does not lay the blame on the audience. She and Pamela observed that, especially for younger audiences, it is the working out of the mystery surrounding the missing baby that grabs attention. Then, in the end, the play becomes a powerful source of thinking about our past and our future as Australians.
So do we need to apologise for Australia? Walking back through Sydney I noted Sandringham Garden in Hyde Park, dedicated as a "Memorial to King George IV and King George VI" in faded gold - tying this penal colony with unbreakable bonds to the old British Empire. No wonder the ex-convict pioneers went mad.
Then I saw the quintessential Kenworth truck with the proud but heartless label "Bitch from Hell II". Presumably other trucks are numbered I, III and so on. If this is the world-view of the 2003 Australian truck driver, then we all have much to be sorry for. Holy Days are surely ahead otherwise.
Holy Day by Andrew Bovell
Sydney Theatre Company
September 30 - October 4
Bookings: Canberra Ticketing 6275 2700
Group and School Bookings (suitable Years 10-12): 6243 5709
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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