Wednesday, March 11, 2015

BLACK DIGGERS at Adelaide Festival 2015

Black Diggers by Tom Wright

Directed by Wesley Enoch. Set Design Stephen Curtic. Costumes Ruby Langton-Batty. Lighting Ben Hughes. Composer/sound designer Tony Brumpton. Cast includes: George Bostock (cultural Consultant),Luke Carroll, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, Guy Simon, Colin Smith, Eliah Watego, Tibian Wyles

Presented by Queensland Theatre Company and the Brisbane Festival in association with QPAC and The Balnaves Foundation. Her Majesty's Theatre. Adelaide Festival 2015. March 10 - March 14.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

The cast of Black Diggers. Phoo by Jamie Williams

Wesley Enoch’s production of Black Diggers is a powerful indictment of the treatment of aborigines who have served in combat since the Great War of 1914 – 1918. It does not resort to blame or condemnation, but rather relates the sorry episode with humour, humanity and dignity. Tom Wright's epic account leaves us in no doubt that serving aborigines fought courageously for their country, made the ultimate sacrifice upon foreign soil and survived the horrors of war only to be treated abominably upon their return, dispossessed of their land for soldier settlement, subjected to apartheid and regarded as second class citizens. Black Diggers is their story, sourced from true experiences and told with respect through theatre, music and song.
Wesley Enoch's production of Black Diggers for the Queensland Theatre Company
The indigenous male cast mills about the stage as the audience enter. A fire burns from an incinerator and a man sits in the centre of the stage, polishing boots. Three aborigines perform a traditional smoking ceremony to cleanse the cast in preparation for their performance. Here is no artifice to distract, no spectacle to transport the audience to fantasy and illusion. The stage is set for the stories of those aborigines who went to war, for adventure, for duty, for a belief in what was good and right, for the very same reasons that white youth took up the cause. Some lied about their age, some cajoled the recruiting officers and some showed themselves fit and able to fight for God, King and country.

Colin Smith and Guy Simon in Black Diggers
Photo by Branco Gaica
Enoch directs his cast with the skill of a commander and a heart of compassion. The performances are natural, bristling with energy, graphically portraying a history of massacre, enlistment, combat, death and their homecoming’s cruel rejection. Tableaus, strikingly lit, by Ben Hughes are juxtaposed with the stories of Archie, Nigel and the 15 year old boy who lied about his age and suffered the devastating impacts of a war that none could have imagined. The white man’s Christianity and songs offer faith and hope in the face of peril. White and black are one upon the battlefield. Mates. Comrades of different colour but of the same experience that makes them one. On the blackboard wall that surrounds the stage, actors graffiti the theatres of war: Passchendaele, Gallipoli, Portieres and Messines; from Turkey to the Western front white and black fought side by side for the same cause.

And then they returned. Archie knows full well the blessing and the curse of war where boys became men and everyone was judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the valour of their deeds. And still they try to bar him from the pub on Anzac Day until a member of the RSL waives the rules. For war hero Mick Dempsey, he finds himself thrown from his land as the government acquires it for white returned soldiers’ homes. Nigel wanders aimlessly across the stage advertising a Tarzan the Ape Man show, and drinks from a bottle in a paper bag. Shell-shocked and forever scarred by the experience of war, the young soldier stands dazed in the uniform that robbed him of his youth.

It is here that Tom Wright’s script deals its most devastating blow. Injustice looms large, protesting against the stolen rights that drown the dignity of human spirit. In sombre tone, the didgeridoo underscores Prime Minister Keating’s acknowledgement of the Unknown Soldier, who represents all who fought on foreign shores. A trumpeter in full uniform plays the Last Post and the painted words upon the back wall spell out the message to all those who remain: Lest We Forget.

George Bostock in Black Diggers. Photo by Branco Gaica
Enoch’s superbly and evocatively staged production is a call to action. A cast of fine actors play their parts with the authority of ownership. There is not a moment in this production that does not echo with the sights and sounds of commitment, cloaked in irony and performed with a truth that deserves recognition and restitution.   Black Diggers is their story, told with their voice and resonating with undeniable truth. I defy any member of the audience to leave the theatre unmoved. Let us remember that dues are owed and we all must play our part.
This is a story that had to be told and a production that must be seen. Don’t miss it if it plays in a theatre near you.

The cast of Black Diggers. Photo by Branco Gaica