Review: The Shifting Heart (White Box Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Mar 8 – 24, 2018
Playwright: Richard Beynon
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Laurence Coy, Lucas Linehan, Dina Panozzo, Tony Poli, Di Smith, David Soncin, Ariadne Sgouros
Image by Danielle Lyonne

Theatre review
It is Christmas time 1956, and the Bianchi home in Melbourne is bustling with activity. The family is getting excited about the festivities ahead, occupying themselves with the frenzied yet mundane business of the Australian summer. We soon discover, however, that beneath the Bianchis’ attempts to go about their normal lives, they have to contend with the social stigma of being recent immigrants to a land where strange and cruel attitudes prevail, about which people are deserving, and not deserving, of being here.

Richard Benyon’s 61 year-old play The Shifting Heart is concerned with a peculiar brand of racism that we undertake, whereby earlier immigrants persecute later immigrants, whilst Indigenous peoples are routinely neglected. The Bianchis discover that although legally permitted to settle here, many do not extend them a welcome. Benyon portrays the family trying to get on with life the best they can, amidst the unjust obstacles heaved at them every day.

It is a sensitive piece of writing, offering insights that remain pertinent; a valuable study of how racial prejudice operates in societies like ours, with an ever evolving racial composition. As a work of drama though, scenes of emotional vigour seem to occur few and far between, and its manufacture of tension tends to be overly understated.

Directed by Kim Hardwick, the production is a persuasive one. We may not be heavily invested in its personalities, but their stories are certainly believable. Isabel Hudson’s set and costumes, along with Martin Kinnane’s lights, are beautifully evocative, affecting our imagination with flair and efficiency.

Dina Panozzo and Tony Poli, as Momma and Poppa Bianchi, bring chemistry and warmth to the stage, both effective in transporting us to another time of our shameful history. David Soncin leaves a strong impression as Gino Bianchi, the gregarious and passionate young Italian-Australian determined to live unhampered by prejudice. Their neighbour Leila Pratt is played by the very likeable Di Smith, relied upon to deliver much needed humour, and effervescence, in this weighty observation of Australian life.

There is no denying that humans everywhere cannot help but create difference, seemingly for the purpose of baseless discrimination. Bigotry is not natural to our children but somehow, a need to hate is developed as we mature, and whether it pertains to race or to other arbitrary features, we learn to feel good about ourselves by exerting power over others. This is ubiquitous, but we must never think it irreversible.

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