Friday, September 19, 2008


Company B presents in assocition with Malthouse Melbourne YIBIYUNG by Dallas Winmar.

This play is the story of Yibiyung, a young Indigenous girl at the turn of the last century living in Western Australia under the increasing control of laws and policies concerning Indigenous affairs under a government appointed officer called the Chief Protector of Aborigines, who was made under the 1905 Aborigines Act "the legal guardian" of all "aboriginal" and "half caste" children up to the age of 16 years, enabling him to send any "aboriginal" and "half caste" child to an orphanage, mission, or industrial school, with or without the child’s parents’ permission.

This story sounds very familiar. It should, since Phil Noyce told one like it brilliantly and dramatically in his film RABBIT PROOF FENCE. Company B has presented this as part of their adult subscription list. I believe that the play by Dallas Winmar is more ideally suited for a younger audience, perhaps pre-teens and young juveniles. It is hard to accept this text seriously as adult fare with the Noyce film burnt culturally into my memories. (When I was 12 I saw Walt Disney’s POLLYANNA with Hayley Mills. It, in retrospect, unconsciously taught me a lot about how to view other people in the world and gave me a kind of role model to identify with, and most gloriously, in retrospect, gave me my first love lorn infatuation: Hayley Mills. (I loved THE PARENT TRAP!!!! I loved THE MOON SPINNERS!!!!!! I also loved THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) If I were 12 today, Company B’s YIBIYUNG with Miranda Tapsell would, I am certain, give me, similarly, an insight into the world of adult behaviour and a crushing infatuation with Ms Tapsell.)

Now this is a handsome looking production. The Set by Jacob Nash, a metaphor of a native white ghost tree having burst and grown through the smothering floorboards of a white man’s house, surrounded by childlike stars chalked onto the black wall surround is immaculately presented. The Costumes by Bruce McKinven are also a pleasure in their concept and simple intricacy of their execution. They are beautiful. The Lighting by Niklas Pajanti, a "midnight blue", I am reliably informed, "winter blue" and a deep warmth of the "dirty white" gel with the magic of UV light to capture the night chalked star-sky and the ghost tree in the dark, is transportingly beautiful, as well. In fact there is so much beauty that one felt that the Art Direction had been inspired by the look of Julie Taymor’s FRIDA bi-op film, it has the sheen of a designed magazine layout. Maybe there is a cultural nod to Tracey Moffatt’s Photographs and Video/film work, however without her satirical and ironic point of view, and instead replaced with a poverty glamour and sentimentality.The sound scape of the natural worlds of the play are captivating. However, it is marred, sometimes, by overdeveloped instrumentalisation in the score by Steve Francis. It is best when the guitar is gently picked on the side of the stage. So there is much to admire if you like this sophisticated “look” on this very true and tragic history.

It is the writing that is very old fashioned. It is the kind of writing you might find in a children’s storybook accompanied by beautiful illustrations. Tediously linear, absolutely no surprises, even with documentary readings of letters from official decrees, to underline the plot developments and set the scene. The Characters are thumbnail sketches that represent things like “Spruiker”; “Lady”; “Teacher”; “Farmer’s Wife”; “Cook”; ”Policeman”; “Doctor” etc. Names of functions not real people. The actors are directed and they give suitable choices to elucidate the sketch they are attempting to breathe life into. The "Lady" is ill with depression after the loss of her own child and makes a substitute out of little Yibiyung and tries to do good! The "Doctor" is destructive to his ill wife and has no understanding of his patient’s psychology and worse is a criminal of the most reprehensible kind in his inclinations to his ward!! The “Policeman” is kind but bound by rules!!! The “Cook” is a curmudgeon but really has the heart of a child!!!! etc. The actors are all creating and giving as much as they can and are truly creditable in their achievement.

The Direction by Wesley Enoch is classically textbook and neat but it is dull and pedestrian, and lacks depth. It is just staged in a meandering sentimental tone. All the choices of dramaturgical responsibility, look, sound and acting are Mr Enoch’s responsibility and I don’t feel he has been rigorous enough despite his heartfelt sentiments in the Director’s Notes in the program. And it is undoubtedly true that “the need to tell these stories has not evaporated”. But it is the HOW you tell it that becomes more and more important if you wish these stories to have continuous impact. For adults this HOW is not good enough. I believe if you marketed this to the younger audience I suggested, it would probably be impactful too them. If I had known, I would have taken my young nephew and nieces and maybe some of their friends as my theatre going partners and I would have been less judgemental in my estimation of my experience at the theatre for I would have had the pleasure of seeing my young friends be told a story of Indigenous and White history that should not be forgotten and watch them in a social setting of some effort begin to perceive the complexities of what it might be to be an Australian citizen in this time. As an adult if you enjoy the suitably sentimental and like to indulge in the sedation of childhood memories when the world was just GOOD or BAD and NASTY or NICE etc then this may serve as an entertainment.

Otherwise, for me, this experience was patronising and very disappointing.

Playing now unitl 26 October. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.

1 comment:

Alison Croggon said...

Hey Kevin - few quibbles with this review, except in your deeply misled (and, ah, somewhat patronising) characterisation of children's fiction. Maybe you should read some! Start with David Almond or Alice Hoffman ... or Maurice Sendak or Shaun Tan or Andy Griffiths. Or even The Magic Pudding.