Monday, January 23, 2017

Which Way Home (Sydney Festival)

Which Way Home by Katie Beckett.  Ilbijerri Theatre Company co-presented with Belvoir, at Belvoir Street Theatre Downstairs, January 11-29, 2017.

Director – Rachael Maza
Set and Costume Designer – Emily Barrie; Lighting – Niklas Pajanti; Sound – Mark Coles Smith; Dramaturg – Jane Bodie
Performed by Katie Beckett and Tony Briggs

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 22

It’s so good to see such a modest, beautiful work of theatre art as Which Way Home, positive in feeling but without sentimentality, about finding the right final home for a young woman’s father – an Aboriginal man determined to fulfil his responsibilities as both mother and father after his wife’s early death.

This is a personal play.  It is a simple play.  Two people in a small space, defined by an intimate audience, with a few props indicating a journey.  On the wall behind them, a faint image of a road map.  On one side, hardly noticeable, a thin stream of sand falls as if out of the sky, creating a small growing pile – perhaps the sands of time.

This is not a political play – yet it has much to teach us about Aboriginal disadvantage, Aboriginal family culture, the need to be ‘on country’, and Aboriginal strength and resilience.  Tony Briggs performs ‘Dad’ with all the complexities – of humour combined with the need to protect, advise and sometimes direct his daughter as she grows up.  And accept her adult role in this journey.

Katie Beckett, in performing ‘Tash’ is more than an actor.   She has created this play from her own experience (her own mother died when she was five), and in following through with some two years’ development work led by Rachael Maza and Jane Bodie, Katie is  in herself the very example of strength and resilience.  In the words, and especially in the silences on stage, you feel the reality of her life and the truth of what she wrote in the program:

“After my Dad’s last heart attack … I was so scared of losing him that I wanted to give him something so he knows how special he is and what he means to me…he is my dad, my mum, and at times my best friend.  This is a story of unconditional love.”

For me, personally, the issue in the play of getting lost on the way from Ipswich, near Brisbane (where Dad had moved to find work when he married) to Dad’s home country near Goodooga is very understandable.  Tash, of course, has grown up to be a city person, depending on pre-planned organisation of activities and maps on her mobile phone.

I have often travelled and bushwalked in Central Queensland, and only recently followed some of the confusing routes referred to in the play.

Here’s a copy of my road map covering the most straightforward route - if you can work it out - about 750 kilometres from Brisbane to Goodooga.

Brisbane is the capital of Queensland on the east coast (upper right).
Goodooga is on the very edge of the map at bottom left.
Which Way Home Map 1

But Dad wants to go via Mungindi and Lightning Ridge.  So here’s another section of map for that area.

Goodooga is north-west (up and to the left) of Lightning Ridge
Mungindi is in Map 1, at the right end of the straight section of the NSW / Queensland border
just above the word 'Brisbane' in the caption.

If, like Tash, you thought it’s easy – just drive west – then you have another think coming. You want to go to Lightning Ridge to dig up opal and  make a fortune, and to meet up with the old-style country singers and storytellers.  I know because I and my wife did exactly that (not the fortune bit!).

But the back roads, and even the ‘main’ roads, may not be in good condition – they were flooded when I was last there – and being sure of your direction in flat country with brigalow scrub and no mobile phone signal can be just what the doctor didn’t order.

But Dad knows the traditional way – follow the finches.  That’s the Zebra finches who will always take you to water.  I know them from bushwalking in Central Australia.

But for me the moment of recognition that we were in Dad’s country in the play was when I heard the sound of the peaceful dove, such a small plump bird always pecking around the mulga or the spinifex  – just a few repeated notes that sound out across all that remote country of northern Australia.  Though I may not be Aboriginal, it’s the peaceful dove that tells me when I’m home.

And that’s where Tash’s Dad’s ashes belong.