Saturday, March 12, 2016

HART Adelaide Fringe Festival 2016


Concept and performance. Ian Michael. Text by Ian Michael and Seanna van Helten. Directed by Penny Harpham. Composition and sound design by Raya Slavin. Set and costume design by Raya Slavin. Lighting design and technical management by Shannah McDonald. Produced and tour management by Anna Kennedy. AV Design by Michael Carmody. She Said Theatre. Tandanya. Adelaide Fringe Festival 2016. March 2 – 13. 2016

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Ian Michael in Hart. Photo by Gabbi Briggs

At the end of his moving homage to those of his people who became known as the Stolen generation, aboriginal performer  and graduate of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Ian Michael  told his audience, I dedicate this performance to the 10 year old girl who committed suicide yesterday.”

Clloe Greaves' set design for Hart. Photo: Julie Zhu
Hart is a moving, disturbing account of the atrocities perpetrated against the aboriginal people with specila reference to four of his Noongar people who suffered under the heartless and ignorant  policy of removal of young children from their parents and families, ostensibly for their own good. It was in fact a systematic act of abuse and destruction of aboriginal culture and custom. Performer, Michael with co-writer Seanna van helten and director Penny Markham have created a powerful piece of verbatim theatre, drawing on the experiences of Sam Dinah, Paul Parfitt and Hart, as well as Michael himself. The performance moves back and forth through time from the early 1930sin Western Australia to the 1980s when Michael was a young boy.

Ian Michael in Hart
Performing within a circle of flour and with only a chair for furniture, Michael recounts the forced maltreatment of indigenous people, a treatment that continues to the present day. Familiar and disturbing images of aborigines in chains or being dressed in mission clothes or with a mother from whom the baby child was snatched and taken to an institution, flash upon the screen. A sound track juxtaposes the repentant Sorry speech by Prime Minister Kevin  Rudd or the groundbreaking Redfern address by Prime Minister Paul Keating with the bigoted, facile remarks of shock jock Alan Jones.  It is both a horrifying indictment of the white man’s cruel and unjust treatment of the people and a voice of hope in the words and deeds of those who strive to restore dignity and justice to the nation’s traditional owners.

All this and much more is performed in an atmosphere of non- judgmental storytelling. The experiences speak for themselves, and Michael’s performance resonates with sincerity and compassion. At times the circle of flour is disturbed to create a vapour through the air, a symbol of the dirt, recalling Gough Whitlam’s reconciliation with traditional landowner Vincent Lingian when he poured soil through his hand in 1975. We are still reminded of how little has been achieved since then. Michael  besmears himself with the flour to represent the boy painting to express the rituals and commemorations of a proud and unified race.  The tragedy of its decimation is only too poignant, but Michael’s performance under Markham’s sensitive direction is never accusatory.

The past is behind us, and yet it is ever present. Michael recounts his own experiences as an actor. At auditions he may be regarded too white for one role or too dark for another. In his own industry perceptions run deep and preconceptions cloud the truth that we are all human, with feelings and desires. In an hour, Michael transgresses the past to paint a portrait of a present that still bears the yoke of a cruel and misunderstanding past. There is no overt pronouncement of blame, only the implicit plea to understand, to reconcile and to amend the injustices of the past that still permeate the conditions of the present. The stories are told with passion and humour and Michael’s relaxed and appealing performance style only serves to heighten the contrast between the ideal and the iniquitous.
Ian Michael in Hart. Photo by Julie Zhu

Indigenous senator and outstanding Australian Olympian, Nova Peris has called the 10 year old’s suicide incomprehensible.  I have found the cruel treatment of the aboriginal people since the white invasion of 1788 equally incomprehensible, made even more so by the excellent performance of Hart  by Michael. And yet, there have been advances and Hart is a cry rom the heart that hopefully will offer hope for a better future for the land’s original people and the ideal of reconciliation.   

Hart is  a compelling and unifying experience for all Australians. It truly is a show no to be missed.