Thursday, 15 October 2015

Another Evening Out

On Monday evening I was in London at the National Theatre with a friend. We saw Our Country's Good, which I had read nothing about, knowing only dimly that it was set in Sydney after the arrival of the First Fleet and was based on a novel by Thomas Kenneally about a convict production of The Recruiting Officer by George Farquahar.

The play was mostly well acted, the revolving stage was cleverly used, there were plenty of comic moments, and yet I was appalled. I was even more appalled when I looked at reviews afterwards and discovered that no-one else seemed to be appalled.

The reason I was appalled was that the play has an almost constantly present background character. He is given very few words and is called simply "The Aborigine". This is bad enough: couldn't the playwright even have bothered to find out the name of the tribe with whom first contact was made in Sydney? This would have been at least the wisp of something like an acknowledgement that she understood that she was portraying a member of a culture, a person who deserved respect as an individual, rather than simply including a one-dimensional cut-out, to provide a spot of exotic dramatic colour to her play.

But worse was to come: in the National Theatre production, the role of "The Aborigine" is taken by Gary Wood who, as his promotional website explains, is "from the Isle of Wight", (I suppose at least he is from an island, which, one could argue, gives him some degree of shared experience with Indigenous Australians; actually, no, one couldn't really argue that, because it's rubbish). Would Gary Wood be acceptable playing a Maori or an American Indian, or is it simply that there is a belief that Australia's Indigenous people won't mind somehow that they are being depicted so crudely? Does the National Theatre think it got away with this piece of casting by pretending the whole production was colour blind, casting British African actors in the role of Governor Phillip and Watkin Tench? How then do they propose dealing with the fact that race exists as an unresolved fact of Australian history and, by including an Indigenous character, race is an issue that is raised by the play. Casting a black actor as the senior representative of white authority does not disguise this fact but only muddles things.

It would have been different if the play's author had made no mention of Indigenous Australians. But, as soon as she did decide to include this "The Aborigine" figure, race entered her drama. It appears that no-one at the National Theatre understands this. As a result audiences are subjected to the embarrassing, (to describe it in the kindest possible terms), spectacle of a British actor tripping about the stage in a brown nappy, his body cursorily striped with some backstage luvvie's idea of the body paint that, even when accurately applied, is, I suspect, only put on for complex ritual and ceremonial purposes.

Sometimes the performer playing "The Aborigine" strikes a "typical Australian Aboriginal pose", (horribly reminiscent of that struck by a once popular statue, now more or less vanished even from the most unenlightened suburban Australian gardens):

sometimes he beats a couple of sticks together and mouths odd sounds that are probably meant to be a thing the playwright presumably imagines exists, namely "Aboriginal language" - note: there are many and they are complex and none I've ever heard sounds anything like the inarticulate grunts uttered by Wood on Monday night, (please tell me the author of the play does not subscribe to Alf Garnett's views about dark-skinnned foreigners not having languages, but just barking at each other "like dogs").

To me, what was presented on the National Theatre stage in the shape of "The Aborigine" was no different from the dreadful old practice of blacking up. No, sorry, I think it was worse than blacking up, because, at least in London, Australian Aboriginals have virtually no voice to raise in complaint at their depiction. Furthermore, despite the efforts of successive governments and the fervent hopes of many in the white population, Australia's various Indigenous peoples are among the most misunderstood, disadvantaged people on earth.

They were knocked sideways by the cultural earthquake that was the arrival of the British colonisers - the people who have the most well-articulated, prominent roles in Our Country's Good - and since then they have had little opportunity to recover, being faced instead by wave on wave of new arrivals and the cultural tides of change that came with them. Australia's original residents have complex cultures, languages, heritages. They have been outnumbered and overwhelmed by greedier, more aggressive newcomers. What they certainly do not deserve is any added insult - and that includes being caricatured and exploited as a theatrical device whose purpose is to add a bit of colour and zest to a play.

Our Country's Good thinks of itself as cheering for the underdog in its portrayal of transported convicts as victims of a cruel system but, if a playwright is going to concern herself with one set of victims, it seems at the very least an oversight to include but ignore another set of victims, particularly given that that set of victims a) has had no happy outcomes and b) was the truly innocent party. The convicts were treated badly but they were at least being punished for having broken the rules of the system in which they lived, rules that they were aware existed, (however unfair those rules may or may not have been). The Indigenous people of Australia were very nearly destroyed merely for living in a place that others decided they wanted. They were not punished by a system they were part of. They knew nothing of that system's rules. They were shoved roughly out of the way.

There are choices to be made as a dramatic artist - in this case, if you cannot face the complexities of the issues involved in one section of the population's history, you leave that section out of your play. If you do choose to introduce that section of the population into your drama, you make sure that you deal adequately with their history and fate. You do not decide to use them as mere stage decoration, resurrecting some dusty notion of the  "noble savage" for superficial dramatic pizzazz. That is not merely a mistake - it is a travesty. As a result, to my mind, Our Country's Good is one of the worst - and most culturally arrogant - plays I've ever seen.

PS I've just realised the play is also historically anachronistic, since a goodish chunk of the script is devoted to a hangman wanting to get the length of the rope right for a good clean drop, which I suspect didn't make sense in the era when hanging meant slow strangulation; the standard drop didn't come in until 1866, when an Irish doctor called Samuel Haughton invented, (if that's the right word) it.

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