Thursday, January 26, 2017
Huff (Sydney Festival)
Huff by Cliff Cardinal. Native Earth Performing Arts (Canada), at Seymour Centre, Reginald Theatre, January 24-28, 2017.
Playwright/Performer – Cliff Cardinal
Director/Dramaturg – Karin Randoja
Designers: Set and Costume – Jackie Chau; Lighting – Michelle Ramsay; Sound – Alex Williams
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Huff begins and ends with the actor’s head entirely encased in a transparent plastic bag: the very frightening possibility that all parents fear for their young child. His hands are tied behind his back. Within three minutes, he must persuade a member of the audience to rip the bag off and promise never to give it back, no matter what he says.
Is this theatre, where we come for entertainment, seated in comfort? Or is this a threat in reality?
Fortunately the second audience member he selects satisfies him that she will not give the plastic bag back. 70 minutes later she is true to her promise – but he has more plastic bags in his pocket. He gaff tapes a new one on, but at least this time his hands are free and at the last minute he rips the bag off, gasping.
But we know he might yet try again.
To have two couples at different times walk down the centre aisle in this very small theatre, almost to within touching distance of the solo performer, then turn and demonstrably make their exit, is some kind of measure of what you might expect from Huff.
Except that these people did not have the patience – even I felt I needed – to reach the point of understanding where this play would take me. I came to Huff after having just seen Which Way Home (reviewed here January 22, 2017), by an Australian Indigenous writer and performer with such a different feeling and style. Is it so different for this North American/Canadian Indigenous writer/performer?
Yet the social issues in both their families, and even their cultural traditions were not dissimilar.
‘Tash’ in Katie Beckett’s play grows up without a mother, with her single-parent father trying to cope with properly bringing up two sons and his daughter who needs his protection and guidance in the modern city world far away from his traditional country and spiritual guides: especially among the birds.
Soon after the second couple had left the audience in Cliff Cardinal’s play, we get the picture together of this teenage boy brought up on a Reservation, going to a Reservation school staffed by ‘whites’, brought up by a father – a traditional ‘warrior’ unable to cope with the inevitable frustrations of modern life – worse than faced by Tash’s Dad, who at least found work to support his family.
The boy’s mother had become an alcoholic to avoid her husband’s violence, and finally hanged herself in the forest. His elder brother has just done the same. He himself, now that his father has used his mother’s sister as a replacement and his guiding grandmother is no longer capable of keeping things together, is now fixated on suicide.
In this boy’s spirit world, will Trickster destroy him too, or can the calming ‘huff’ of Wind – the breath out, the exhalation of peace – keep him going?
How different is this story from those we often hear from many Aboriginal communities in this country, while we argue about celebrating Australia Day on the date when Captain Phillip stuck a flag in Eora country and declared ownership by the British Crown?
Why did those people walk out, I wonder? I think perhaps because the structure of the play for the first half hour or more is ‘bitty’ in the extreme. Cliff Cardinal plays all the characters, including Wind and Trickster, his mother, his aunt, his grandmother, his father, the uncomprehending school teacher, his brother and other ‘friends’, and a radio presenter from Shit Creek Radio reading the news – of the burning down of a motel, the setting alight of the forest, and the authority’s searching for the criminals. But the news reader doesn’t know of the children’s plan to burn down the school – only not yet carried out because of the elder brother’s death.
It took me a while into the final stages of the performance to understand that this teenage style, over-the-top bravado skit format, was correct for the character of the young boy. I had to go back to remember teaching Year 7.
That’s what makes this play so terrifying, to be made to understand why it is that so many young Indigenous children take their own lives. And worse, because those people who walked out early missed the point – the reason for going to the theatre in the first place. For me their leaving, and the manner of their leaving, was a question of respect – for the writer, the performer and the people Cliff Cardinal represents in this work.