The Weekend by Henrietta Baird. Mooghalin Performing Arts in the Sydney Festival at Carriageworks, Redfern, January 18-23, 2019.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Performed by Shakira Clanton
Director – Liza-Mare Syron; Producer – Lily Shearer; Set Design – Kevin O’Brien; Lighting Design – Karen Norris; Sound/Music Design – Nick Wales and Rhyan Clapham; Choreographer – Vicki Van Hout.
Developed from the author’s experience of a mother’s worst-ever weekend, The Weekend fools us into laughing at deeply ironic black moments of humour leading ultimately to a bleak recognition of the reality of domestic violence and a father’s inability to take on responsibility. While performing as a dancer in Cairns, far-north Queensland, Lara receives a call saying that her children have been left alone by their father for days without food. She takes the weekend off to fly to Sydney. Unable to find Simon among drug-dealers who prey on poverty-stricken women, Lara, at risk of the violence already meted out by Simon to her children, manages to take them to Cairns with her to safety.
“Our vision is transformation through cultural arts. We create community-based stories and produce distinctive cross-cultural and interdisciplinary performance works. Moogahlin supports both emerging and established First Peoples performing artists, nurturing work created, produced and performed by First Peoples for First Peoples.”
Henrietta Baird’s is an Aboriginal woman’s story, culturally embedded in verbal language, body language and unexpected twists of humour – but our feeling of empathy is powerful, for her plight as well as her success in saving her children, no matter what our cultural background. The Weekend is a terrific example of success for Moogahlin https://moogahlin.org/ . It is an excellent choice for the Sydney Festival because, as my neighbour audience member commented, it gives people the chance to see theatre of a kind they might not normally go to.
|Tower block 1 or 2 - Floor 7 appeared to Lara exactly the same in
either tower as she escaped the awful smell in the lift.
|Lara in the entry approaching the filthy lift
For the Aboriginal community, despite The Weekend’s concern about drugs, alcohol and so many men’s failure to provide their sons with proper role models, I found when speaking with Henrietta and actor/dancer Shakira who represents her on stage, a powerful sense of celebration of their art. There is in Redfern and in the old railway workshops a proud history of Aboriginal theatre from the days of the first National Black Theatre (1972 to 1977). I thought I recognised the director’s name – Syron: Dr Liza-Mare Syron, who has written “An Actor Prepares: what Brian told me” (search for https://australianplays.org/assets/files/resource/doc/2012/02/BlakStage_Essay_AnActorPrepares.pdf ).
Brian Syron, her father’s uncle, famously directed and trained actors, as I recall from seeing early Black Theatre work, leading to his production of Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man in 1975. She writes: “I was front row with my dad at the Bondi Pavilion production of Bobby Merritt’s The Cake Man in 1977. I was fourteen…. and in 1986 I left Sydney to audition for the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) acting course in Melbourne; I was twenty-four. Before I left, Brian suggested I change my surname from Kenny to Syron, which he believed would assist my career. I took his advice.”
So The Weekend has cultural and personal history – back to an Aboriginal man who did provide a positive and productive role model for its director when she was young.
The performance style and design shows a fascinating development from the early naturalistic Black Theatre plays I remember, via the symbolism of The Cake Man, to a blending of traditional storytelling in dance, mime, rhythmic sound, and vocal effects, using a cleverly lit simple backdrop which could change, from a mirror reflecting Lara back to herself, to a filthy lift in a drug dealers’ block of flats where she could not bring herself to touch the disgustingly besmirched buttons to get to the 7th floor. We laughed at her disgust, but....
Shakira Clanton begins as the professional dancer, Lara, incorporating “modern dance” and traditional Aboriginal styles; then shifting into storytelling mode, creating an array of women characters – but never the character of Simon, the father who she cannot find. Her skills as an actor make the story engrossing as she, like the ancient mythical shift-shaper, switches in and out of characters; and from Lara telling the story, to her observations about herself and others.
The writing is intense and cleverly constructed, and, as Shakira explained to me, required her to find parallels in her own life experience for all these contrasting characters and emotions to make Lara’s story real. Hard work, very satisfying for us to watch, and for her to achieve in this form of a kind of dance-drama.
This is a work, small in scale but immensely large in impact, which must surely go on long after this Festival production.