Friday, January 13, 2017

The Season (Sydney Festival)

The Season by Nathan Maynard.  Elder/Cultural Adviser: Jim Everett. 
Presented by Tasmania Performs and Sydney Opera House at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, January 10-15, 2017

Creative Team:
Director – Isaac Drandic; Dramaturg – Peter Matheson; Designer – Richard Roberts; Lighting – Rachel Burke; Sound – Ben Grant
Kelton Pell – Ben Duncan, head of the family; Tammy Anderson – Stella Duncan, family matriarch; Nazaree Dickerson – Lou Duncan, Ben and Stella’s daughter; Luke Carroll – Ritchie Duncan, Ben and Stella’s son; James Slee – Clay Duncan, Lou’s son; Lisa Maza – Auntie Marlene, Stella’s sister; Trevor Jamieson – Neil Watson, Ben’s arch rival / Senior Ranger Richard Hadgeman

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 12

This Sydney Festival has been a winner for me. My first three shows are highly valuable experiences, one French Canadian (Anthropologies Imaginaires), one European (Measure for Measure), both out of the box; and the third, Indigenous Australian – The Season : in its special way even more exciting.

I must first admit a potential bias on my part.  My parents were £10 Poms paid for by the Australian Government in the mid-1950s to increase the population and prevent Australia perishing.  Arriving as a young teenager I had no idea that the various Australian governments had been doing everything they could for almost 200 years to perish the original inhabitants.
My capacity to appreciate the continuing existence over thousands of years of Aboriginal mutton-birders on Dog Island near Flinders Island in Bass Strait, between Tasmania and the Mainland, with family names like Duncan and Watson, is inevitably limited.  Having just seen the other two plays (reviewed here January 10 and 11) directed my understanding further away, outside the culture of The Season.

So, simplistically, the annual mutton-birding season seemed to me like the gathering of a family at Christmas.  Will this year be peace and goodwill to all? How did things go last year?  What about next year?
At this level, these modern-day Aboriginal people have to deal with modern-day issues.   Lou’s son Clay has the same surname as his grandparents.  Ben and Stella live in Launceston in Tasmania.  Lou and Clay live in Melbourne.  Clay is fixated in the belief that his father will magically appear on the beach, and lights a fire to guide him in.  The wind gets up, the fire escapes – yet dealing as a family with such imminent danger sees them resolve differences.
We, watching, are relieved – but we can’t help but wonder what will happen next time.  The joint management of the national park means the Aboriginal ranger will have to insist on conservation and heritage rules being obeyed by people who have successfully managed their land in their traditional ways from time immemorial.

Sex, alcohol and strong personalities all play their roles.  Which sister rules the roost?  How can a Duncan love a Watson, especially that reprobate Neil?  How long can Ben keep up the workload in pulling up and preparing a commercial quantity of birds as age creeps on apace?  Can Ritchie be trusted to take the lead?  And can Stella honestly accept that her daughter will never fix Clay’s need for a father figure now that Lou has realised that she really is a lesbian?   That word ‘Gay’, Stella repeats over and over, trying to get used to the idea.

But there’s something about the atmosphere in this play, surely emanating directly from the life experience of the writer, from the Maynard family, which escapes me and my European assumptions.  There is a tremendous depth of humour built into even the most difficult points of transgression between family members.  This was not a matter of the play being a comedy (there’s my genre-ism surfacing awkwardly).  It’s not just a matter of how this particular family gets along.

The sense of humour is the core of culture.  Watching, from the outside as I inevitably must, I felt the wonder of these people who belong in that place.  Their humour shows how they belong.  And so the play is wonderfully funny.  Thousands of years’ worth of funny.

Then I think back to my European culture and feel the biting intellect of Shakespeare coming through that Measure for Measure, and the sharp satire of colonial academicalism in Gabriel Dharmoo’s Anthropological Imaginings – and I feel I’m missing something that happens in The Season.

I can’t define what it is, but it’s exciting, and I feel tremendously grateful to the writer Nathan Maynard, the elders represented by Jim Everett, the designing and directing team, and all the actors who just blew our minds away.