We’ve had two extraordinary nights of theatre now. After the second our friend Jonathan commented that in the space of a single weekend we’d managed to experience Australia’s two greatest wars.
Friday night we saw Nigel Jamieson’s Gallipoli at the Sydney Theatre Company. No Indigenous content here, but a world-class piece of theater-craft. Just about everything about this production works to perfection. It tells the story of the Australian entry into the Great War through the letters and diaries of those who took part; the staging is inventive, innovative, and serves the story without overwhelming it or (harder still) upstaging itself. I don’t think I learned a lot of history that I didn’t already know, but I came to feel quite differently about what I saw. I never really appreciated how long the siege at Gallipoli lasted, and it was one of the marvels of this production that it took me to the edge of discomfort in making me come to that realization, but never pushed me quite over. It is art that educates without vanquishing the spirit. Even the occasional somewhat intrusive allusions to Iraq seemed more acceptable the morning afterwards.
The second war was very much an Indigenous affair: the destruction of Tasmania as interpreted by Bangarra in the new production Mathinna. Incredibly, I had the chance to talk for a few minutes beforehand with David Page in the lobby of the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, where Mathinna is playing through August. He characterized the production as a return to an earlier style of choreography for Bangarra, one that focuses on character and narration.
Mathinna tells the story of “a girl’s journey between two cultures.” She is a young girl separated from her family and her natal culture, transplanted into the white world of strange clothing and schoolrooms. When she is ultimately abandoned by the white family that adopted her, she is terrorized and raped by a gang of convicts and finally sinks into the dismal prison and distorted prism of alcohol.
Although narrative dominates in a way that I had not seen in other Bangarra productions (most recently for me, Boomerang) and the characteristic Yolngu dance aesthetic is entirely absent from this piece, it is still filled with strikingly beautiful and haunting imagery. In the very first seconds of the dance, Patrick Thaiday’s hands slip out of the darkness to cover a rock that lies in a tiny circle of light downstage; as he streaked, straining body emerges from behind the light, he looks like a creature taking form as it comes to life.
The next sequence is probably the most exotic and amazing in the entire evening as three dancers suspended upside down from a horizontal crossbar bring Tasmanian muttonbirds to life. The strength of the dancers, the suppleness of their bodies, the absolute control of the slightest movement, and the grace of their metamorphoses is utterly beguiling.
The concluding moments of the evening are equally amazing in their own very different way. As Mathinna gives in to the anesthesia of alcohol, her colonialist’s dress fall away from her and she lies down behind a row of large glass jars stretched across the edge of the stage. The image of her face fills the largest of them, distorted and ghostly. As the lights fade, the whole stage shrinks until there is nothing left but the specter of Mathinna’s face trapped inside and behind the jar like a Victorian specimen preserved in formaldehyde. It is shocking and beautiful and heartrending all at once, and like some of the effects in Gallipoli the night before, it does not so much teach you a new lesson as make you feel quite differently about an old one.