Bloodland by Kathy Balngayngu, Stephen Page (director) and Wayne Blair. Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, October 7 – November 13, 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
We need patience for Bloodland just as the Yolgnu need it in their own culture and to survive in “Australia Fair”. Be patient, allow yourself to gradually become absorbed into the twists and turns of cross-cultural existence, and you will be rewarded with a new understanding at the end.
There is humour in this drama – Mrs White, who teaches the children Advance Australia Fair and kills them if they speak language, Donkey the Dog who howls when AAF is sung, and Cherish who collects mobile phones, including ones whose service has been disconnected. But laughter is relief from tragedy in the Shakespearian sense.
In Romeo and Juliet tragedy derives from the opposing families, the Montagues and the Capulets whose children must not cross an unnecessary boundary. It is a romantic tragedy, because the deaths force the issue of the moral imperative of peace upon us. For the Yolgnu life is much more complicated because there are clans based in different parts of Yolgnu country, while a person in any clan may be Dhuwa or Yirritja and is forbidden to marry a person from their own group.
So the opportunities for conflict over romantic attachments which cross boundaries are rife. Whereas the Duke could lay down the law, which would have made it clear that Romeo and Juliet should have been allowed to come together in peace, and that Juliet’s father’s choice of who she must marry had no standing, Yolgnu law says that the man Billy, although having been away for years while gaining an education in the city, remains the only correct husband for Gapu. She makes the proper decision despite her feelings for Runu and his for her. There is no romance in this tragic ending, for Runu or Gapu. The law has been fulfilled, as it has been established over thousands of years for the survival of the people as a whole.
Add to all of this the imposition and the attractions of a culture of individual demands for freedoms, and conflicts become irreconcilable, even when elders try to maintain the proper ceremonies. For those of us whose forebears have come to these shores in very recent times, the best – in fact the only – offer we can make is patience, respect and proper treatment of those who came here so long before us. Advance Australia fair is what this brave drama says to all of us.
Looking at this production from a theatrical point of view, it is impressive to see such a range of Indigenous performers working at top quality level. For me the concluding ceremony represents a major shift in drama – which of course Stephen Page’s Bangarra Dance Company has made in pure dance – from the attempts to imitate non-Indigenous naturalistic plays, which I remember from the beginnings of Black Theatre in the early 1970s, to work where scenes both display Yolgnu practice and create symbolic meaning for a non-Indigenous audience, even including performance in Yolgnu language. This takes Indigenous theatre beyond even work such as Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead which in my view was a major development – and was performed by Wayne Blair.
From a practical point of view, if it is difficult to get to Sydney for 8pm performances, take advantage of STC’s matinees at 1pm on Wednesdays or Mondays at 6.30pm. Try not to miss Bloodland.