The Visitors. Written by Jane Harrison.Directed by Wesley Enoch. Designed by Elizabeth Gadsby. Lighting designer Karen Norris. Composer and Sound designer. Brendan Boney. Sydney Theatre Company and Moogahlin Performing Arts. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. November 8-11 2023. Bookings: 62752700
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins.
I could sing the praises of Wesley Enoch’s production of Jane Harrison’s The Visitors ad infinitum. I could wax lyrical about the outstanding cast of First Nations actors. As one might expect the production values of this joint Sydney Theatre Company and Mooringah Performing Arts collaboration are exemplary. I could applaud loudly Harrison’s story of the meeting between Elders at the time of the arrival of the First Fleet into Botany Bay. But it is not the story alone from the perspective of the custodians of the continent nor the witty dialogue that captures the heart and mind and conscience of an audience. It is the power of conviction and the bitter irony that grips the attention and compels an audience to listen and understand, to perceive what Harrison terms speculative historical fiction through the lens of time. We are immediately faced with questions that echo through the ages. What did the indigenous inhabitants think as they watched the tall ships approach and the aliens visit their shores for the first time?
We can only ponder how the aborigines upon the shore viewed the arrival of the British to their land. Harrison cleverly creates a meeting between elders of different clans on the country of Gordon (Aaron Pederson) a belligerent, angry Eora man. He is joined by self-appointed chair of the meeting, Gary (Guy Simon), Jaky (Elaine Crombie), Joseph (Kyle Morrison), Albert (Beau Dean Riley-Smith), Wallace (Dalara Williams) and Lawrence (Joseph Wunujaka Althouse) playing the young replacement member for Elder Uncle Raymond.
The Visitors simultaneously asks us to examine the past and in the present question the direction that we want this nation to take in the future along the path of reconciliation. Designer Elizabeth Gadsby has costumed the characters in the white man’s fashion while retaining the barefoot connection with the earth, It is a striking comment and even the meeting bears the hallmarks of any public service or political debate with opposing ideas, shifting allegiances, vacillating opinions. After all this is the nature of the human character. Gary desperately attempts to achieve consensus. Gordon rigorously maintains his defiance. Jaky does a surprise turnabout as all struggle to decide their course of action. There is a difference however. There is consensus in observed traditions and laws. There is the observance of welcome to country. There is the control of the message stick to ensure respect for argument and opinion. Harrison makes us acutely aware of a civilized people, respectful of their different communities and bound by custom to consider the attitude towards the visitors.
Moogahlin Performing Arts and Sydney Theatre Company’s co-production presents us with a paradox. Wallace demonstrates the powers of the pick-axe that she has discovered. It represents the potential of new technology. On the other hand Joseph’s description of the effect of alcohol that earlier arrivals have introduced augurs a warning, and Lawrence succumbs to the white man’s illness. Ultimately, the play’s impact is most profound when Gordon, standing aloof upon the rock by the shore, describes the horror of his father’s murder. Pederson’s anguish is palpable, his performance heartstopping in its torment. It provides the hindsight of cruelty and injustice that launches our consciousness from the past to the present and into the future. This is the power of Harrison’s writing and the honesty and theatrical brilliance of the production.
Harrison wrote The Visitors in 2013. Its themes are timeless, its message a welcome enshrined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This production , mounted with such integrity and passion is not only a theatrical tour de force. It is also a hand of reconciliation reaching across time in a spirit of love. In a gesture of shared humanity, at the end of the performance to a standing ovation Elaine Crombie read the cast’s profoundly moving statement of support for the innocent people of Gaza caught up in their horrific conflict. The final question is one to be asked by all: Why cannot love exist throughout the world? The Visitors teaches us that only by recognizing the wrongs of the past can we hope to build a better future of truth telling and treaty. The Visitors offers a bridge to cross.
Photos by Daniel Boud