The Visitors. Written by Jane Harrison.Directed by Wesley
Enoch. Designed by Elizabeth Gadsby. Lighting designer Karen Norris. Composer
and Sound designer. Brendan Boney. Sydney Theatre Company and Moogahlin
Performing Arts. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. November 8-11 2023.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins.
I could sing the praises of
Wesley Enoch’s production of Jane Harrison’s The Visitors ad infinitum. I could
wax lyrical about the outstanding cast of First Nations actors. As one might
expect the production values of this joint Sydney Theatre Company and Mooringah
Performing Arts collaboration are
exemplary. I could applaud loudly Harrison’s story of the meeting between Elders
at the time of the arrival of the First Fleet into Botany Bay. But it is not
the story alone from the perspective of the custodians of the continent nor the
witty dialogue that captures the heart and mind and conscience of an audience.
It is the power of conviction and the bitter irony that grips the attention and
compels an audience to listen and understand, to perceive what Harrison terms
speculative historical fiction through the lens of time. We are immediately
faced with questions that echo through the ages. What did the indigenous
inhabitants think as they watched the tall ships approach and the aliens visit
their shores for the first time?
We can only ponder how the aborigines upon the shore viewed the arrival of the British to their land. Harrison cleverly creates a meeting between elders of different clans on the country of Gordon (Aaron Pederson) a belligerent, angry Eora man. He is joined by self-appointed chair of the meeting, Gary (Guy Simon), Jaky (Elaine Crombie), Joseph (Kyle Morrison), Albert (Beau Dean Riley-Smith), Wallace (Dalara Williams) and Lawrence (Joseph Wunujaka Althouse) playing the young replacement member for Elder Uncle Raymond.
The Visitors simultaneously asks
us to examine the past and in the present question the direction that we want
this nation to take in the future along the path of reconciliation. Designer
Elizabeth Gadsby has costumed the characters in the white man’s fashion while
retaining the barefoot connection with the earth, It is a striking comment and
even the meeting bears the hallmarks of any public service or political debate
with opposing ideas, shifting allegiances, vacillating opinions. After all this
is the nature of the human character. Gary desperately attempts to achieve
consensus. Gordon rigorously maintains his defiance. Jaky does a surprise
turnabout as all struggle to decide their course of action. There is a difference
however. There is consensus in observed traditions and laws. There is the
observance of welcome to country. There is the control of the message stick to
ensure respect for argument and opinion. Harrison makes us acutely aware of a
civilized people, respectful of their different communities and bound by custom
to consider the attitude towards the visitors.
Moogahlin Performing Arts and Sydney Theatre Company’s co-production presents us with a paradox. Wallace demonstrates the powers of the pick-axe that she has discovered. It represents the potential of new technology. On the other hand Joseph’s description of the effect of alcohol that earlier arrivals have introduced augurs a warning, and Lawrence succumbs to the white man’s illness. Ultimately, the play’s impact is most profound when Gordon, standing aloof upon the rock by the shore, describes the horror of his father’s murder. Pederson’s anguish is palpable, his performance heartstopping in its torment. It provides the hindsight of cruelty and injustice that launches our consciousness from the past to the present and into the future. This is the power of Harrison’s writing and the honesty and theatrical brilliance of the production.
Harrison wrote The Visitors in
2013. Its themes are timeless, its message a welcome enshrined in the Uluru
Statement from the Heart. This
production , mounted with such integrity and passion is not only a theatrical
tour de force. It is also a hand of reconciliation reaching across time in a
spirit of love. In a gesture of shared humanity, at the end of the performance
to a standing ovation Elaine Crombie read the cast’s profoundly moving statement
of support for the innocent people of Gaza caught up in their horrific conflict. The final question is one to be asked by
all: Why cannot love exist throughout the world? The Visitors teaches us that only by recognizing the wrongs of the
past can we hope to build a better future of truth telling and treaty. The Visitors offers a bridge to cross.
Photos by Daniel Boud