Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Jan 22 – 26, 2020
Playwright: Jane Harrison
Director: Frederick Copperwaite
Cast: John Blair, Damion Hunter, Colin Kinchela, Nathan Leslie, Leroy Parsons, Glenn Shea, Kerri Simpson
Images by Jamie James
Seven men gather on the shore of Gadigal land, debating whether to welcome or to repel those arriving on ships from overseas. It is 1788, but in Jane Harrison’s The Visitors, these Aboriginal leaders are dressed in three-piece suits, and they speak an English that sounds more like characters from Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, than even any of us would today. Indeed, Harrison’s writing assumes not only the style of classic white theatre, its narrative structure is modelled after the conceit of that 1954 play, involving a council being disrupted by the doubts of a single cautiously deliberative soul.
As though purposefully addressing a Western audience, The Visitors pulls out all the stops so that there is no mistaking the Aboriginal work’s intent to question and to confront. With both content and form shaped in a way that is unequivocally understandable to colonisers, we watch these Indigenous characters painstakingly discuss an appropriate response for what they had imagined to be temporary entrants. Their compassionate struggle with the matter is only made more moving, by the enormity of the fallout that remains unbeknownst to them, that is to become the daily lived experience of all their descendants.
Directed by Frederick Copperwaite, the staging is as polished as it is passionate, with important arguments delivered in ways that are precise and affecting. Visually satisfying, with Lisa Mimmochi’s exacting set and costumes, along with Chloe Ogilvie’s elegant lights, providing a sense of sophisticated dynamism to the story. Sound design by Phil Downing, with additional music by Tim Gray, too are instrumental in transporting us deep into the psyche of rightful land owners past and present.
The ensemble is marvellously cohesive, unwavering in their dedication to this powerful tale. John Blair and Glenn Shea are particularly memorable for their exquisite timing, both performers turning on the charm, having us absolutely captivated by their effortless humour. An impressive gravity is contributed by Leroy Parsons, very convincing and engrossing as Walter, the brave one who dares go against the tide. The show is brought to an intense conclusion by Damion Hunter’s disarming soliloquy as Gordon, who in the crucial moment reveals emotions that are just as raw today as they were at the dawn of this catastrophe.
It may seem that our Indigenous are always meeting us halfway. In The Visitors, they dress and speak like their oppressors, almost like a last-ditch attempt to get people hearing. Characters in the play fail to understand why the whites feel the need to steal; that basic question so many continue to evade today. Colonisation in Australia has been a ruthless project ongoing for over two centuries, and its pace only ever gets more ferocious. One of the men in the play expresses bewilderment at the felling of just one tree in the hands of the whites. Little did he know the true depth of destruction that was to come.