|Playscript and Program
published by Currency Press
Milk by Dylan Van Den Berg. The Street Theatre, Canberra, June 9 – 12, 2021.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director – Ginny Savage
Set and Costume Design – Imogen Keen
Lighting Design – Gerry Corcoran
Sound Design – Peter Bailey
Cultural Consultant – Gaye Doolan
Movement Cultural Consultant – Tammi Gissell
Roxanne McDonald – Character A
Katie Beckett – Character B
Dylan Van Den Berg – Character C
Milk is a new and powerful development in Australian First Peoples’ theatre. It is a highly emotional work in the long-standing tradition which can be seen in four contrasting examples from among many since The Cake Man by Robert J Merritt (1975) became well-known in its film version in 1978, followed (selected just from my own 20 years’ of reviews) by Conversations with The Dead by Richard Frankland (2003), My Urrwai by Ghenoa Gela (2018), and Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui (2018).
It is also a major achievement of the development program under-pinning The Street Theatre’s work, not only for the scriptwriting and direction, but for the beautiful set design and lighting, especially for the lightning on the distant edge of brooding mountains.
To explain how affected, in fact shaken, I felt as the lights and sound faded on the history and personal experiences of these three characters – “an Aboriginal woman from 1840s Tasmania, an Aboriginal woman from 1960s Tasmania, and a fair-skinned, young Aboriginal man from the 2020s” – I need to go to my own experience, weirdly enough in a café in a Canberra suburb, Ainslie, across the city from my usual area.
Dylan Van Den Berg has written “Milk reflects the complex private struggles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living out bifurcated identities.” A few days ago, I found myself at a loose end in Ainslie waiting for a doctor’s prescription to be filled. A café offered onion soup for lunch, and had a Covid-spaced table available.
The café is named Breizh, which I couldn’t pronounce in English. The onion soup was very definitely French. The people serving were clearly Middle Eastern. The specialities were Breton. This is multicultural Canberra.
When I looked up Breizh on my phone while waiting for the soup, I found it is the Breton language name for Brittany in France – the language related to Old Cornish in England and Welsh in Wales, where I was born. Now my mind began to do what Dylan Van Der Berg’s mind was doing in creating his play. One of my grandmothers was Welsh. My father was one of her six sons, but my mother’s father was born within the sounds of Bow Bells in London, with a Cockney accent like I had when my parents brought me to Australia, aged 14 in 1955. His surname was Solly – Jewish, perhaps?
But then, because of the French connection in the café, I remembered going to Normandy to find my Australian wife’s grandfather’s World War I grave, and then my mind turned to Richard the Lionheart, the English king buried at Anjou with his heart kept at Rouen. Then I began thinking, but my background on my father’s father’s side must be in Ireland, as my clearly Celtic skin's lack of colour and red beard and face shape show.
I knew I would be seeing Milk, written by an Aboriginal man with a Dutch name (I assume), so I began to think how my knowledge of the history of Europe which informs my background and personal connections, and the whole way I think and approach life, simply are not in any way part of an Aboriginal person’s make-up.
Though I now have Australian citizenship, I cannot be Australian in the same way as a First Australian is. I only have one or two thousand years to call on; nothing like the tens of thousands represented, say, in the oldest rock art in the world at Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula in WA) where I have heard the local elders speak.
After watching the play, I began to wonder if any of my Irish ancestors who probably left poverty-stricken Western Ireland for London in the late 18th Century, had been transported to Australia in the days of the invasion , or perhaps had become whalers and sealers on Bass Strait islands who had become ‘husbands’ of women such as Character A in Milk.
Other McKones, I think unrelated to me, arrived here in the early 20th Century. I can only hope none of them were the drunkard types that Character B met in pubs in her time. Like Character C, on his European side, I have had the opportunity for a university education and recognition; but without the slur he suffered when whiteys thought he might look a bit Aboriginal. The worst I’ve been called is Ten Pound Pom.
What hit me hard in seeing Milk – a title which I guess might refer to skin colour or even to the fact that Aboriginal people have had difficulty digesting milk which was never in their evolutionary history – was exactly what Van Den Berg has described in his program note: Writing Milk has been a tremendous challenge and an unexpected pleasure. After trawling through stories of grief and pain, what became apparent to me was the strength and resolve of our mobs – despite what we have lost (or, rather, what’s been taken from us) and despite concerted efforts to resign us to history books and anthropological study, we are still here.
As director Ginny Savage wrote, This metaphorical, time and space shifting world asks its audience to consider: what are the truths of the land you’re standing on? Shouldn’t you know them?
|L-R: Dylan Van Den Berg, Katie Beckett and Roxanne McDonald
as Characters C, B and A in Milk, The Street Theatre, Canberra
Photo: Creswick Collective