Thursday, August 18, 2011

Windmill Baby

BELVOIR presents WINDMILL BABY by David Milroy in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir St Theatre.

WINDMILL BABY by David Milroy was commissioned and first produced by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Perth in 2005. David Milroy and Ningali Lawford were awarded the Patrick White Playwright award for a collection of Indigenous plays in 2003. This play, not this production, has toured internationally.

WINDMILL BABY is a one woman monologue . First time director, of this production, Kylie Farmer (Kaarljilba Kaardn), tells us in her Director’s notes : “The storyteller is Maymay (Roxanne McDonald), an old Aboriginal woman returning to her camp which is situated on the old cattle station where she once amassed treasured memories. Like many Aboriginal men and women pre-referendum and post-war, working for ‘The Boss’ (cattle station owners) it wasn’t an easy life to live. Alas, Maymay has held her reminiscing inside for a very long time. Now she has the chance to revisit those tales of love, loss, strength and spirit. It’s time for her to finish this business.”

The Set and Costume Design by Ruby Langton-Batty is a beautiful creation in the small Downstairs space replete with rusting corrugated iron and a deep red dust floor. The Lighting Design by Christopher Page is sympathetic and atmospheric, supported by an especially subtle Composition and Sound Design by Michael Toisuta. The sound was especially interesting, subtle and redolent with imagery - just enough to endow the emotional and actual landscape of the piece. The package for this production has all the art direction ‘ticked boxes’ of a satisfactory commercial production. An air-brushed vision of a place with no gritty realities. No confrontations just pleasantries, this production looked yoked to a stabilising society tradition.

The play itself is six years old and history has surely marked it as a dated work now, charming, gently reflective and of no harm or real political impact, and essentially covering well travelled terrain. It has no real impact today except as a kind of tokenistic reminder of a time where the Aboriginal employee of “The Boss’ made the best of their everyday human journey. It is, in today’s terms a bland and clich├ęd piece of writing. The audience is stroked with a “folksy” nostalgia for a time and character past. It is as if the film SAMSON AND DELILAH had never happened- doesn’t exist. With work like WINDMILL BABY being presented to audiences, still in 2011, is it any wonder that many audiences at SAMSON AND DELILAH asked if it was a true depiction of conditions. They did not believe that that lifestyle was actually happening. Some thought it was dramatic licence. Not real. Not in Australia. “Aw, come on! Fair Dinkum?” it’s an exaggeration.

Ms McDonald is a lovely lady and she has a personal charm, but the acting is just not able to take this essentially ordinary writing into anything other than impersonated words. Let alone keep an audience suspended in belief for 75 minutes and eight different characters. Certainly, Ms McDonald’s program resume is extensive, and, maybe it is the fact that this young first time director, Ms Farmer, as yet, just does not have the skills to elicit a more complex and experienced performance from her actor. I drifted in and out of the experience, of what, for me, became, as the 75 minutes wore on, a witnessing of a wearisome educated remembrance of a text. Words in storytelling order with no under thought or true emotion. Boring. How much mentoring, other than giving Ms Farmer the job, was present in this work? Not much, it appears to me. This work could have been better. This experience could have been illuminating. Instead it had the blanket of sentimentality and generalisations enshrouded about it. Straight up inexperience, showed in the footprints on the red dust of this set design. This text could not shoulder such frailties and not reveal itself as anything but weak.

That the Belvoir Artistic management has curated this work and accepted the generous support of the Balnaves Foundation to stage it as part of the agreement to stage Indigenous theatre programs at Belvoir, one Upstairs and one Downstairs, JACK CHARLES V. THE CROWN, earlier this year, being the other one, does not bode well for the next two years, 2012-2013, if this lazy choice is going to be representative of the quality of the contemporary story telling. Did anyone from Belvoir St really read this work, I mean really read this work, and still believe it had social or even entertainment relevance for a Sydney audience in 2011? Unfortunately, someone did believe that this should be seen over and above any other play available.

There has been a shift in the stories being told by the Indigenous artists and the general concerned artist. My observation of this was when reading Thomas Keneally’s great history called A COMMONWEALTH OF THIEVES: THE IMPROBABLE BIRTH OF AUSTRALIA, (2005) - which certainly supersedes THE FATAL SHORE as the text book on early white Australian history to read; Kate Grenville’s THE SECRET RIVER (2005) and THE LIEUTENANT (2008) where the indigenous history is woven into the story of the first settlements, in a totally new, informative and respectful manner. That an accumulative change is upon us in our artistic output, is best illustrated by the Vogel prize winning novel for this year (2011) THE ROVING PARTY BY Rohan Wilson, which tells in muscular and powerfully masculine writing (I felt assaulted by it emotionally while reading it, bruised – it is amazing!) of the Government supported Bounty Hunters in Van Diemen’s land in1829. This ROVING PARTY led by John Batman with a principal ‘tracker’ Black Bill, himself an indigenous man. Staggering- more so, as I read it in Tasmania, near the geographical locations mentioned in the novel- a wincingly visceral time.
It was, further, difficult, to attend the amazing retrospective of the work of the colonial artist Eugene von Gerard at the Ian Potter Gallery in Federation Square, to celebrate the foundation of the Victorian Art Gallery, without conscience and guilty pain. For, here, is an immense collection of paintings that en mass, brings this artist’s work into some powerful context both of skill and beauty, but I felt also, of politics. For as one moves from one canvas to another, one sees in the earlier works, recordings of the Indigenous people and animals in the centre of the paintings, and then tragically and subtly see the images move to the fringe areas of the canvases, and even later, to be not present at all. It was devastating to see, following on from the Wilson novel, to recognise the settlement as that of John Batman founded, the same man at the centre of THE ROVING PARTY, and worse, that in the signage to the exhibition at the Ian Potter, not much, there is some, but not enough, reference is made to the gradual disappearance of the indigenous people from the commissioned work of Mr Gerard on view. Co-incidentally, the new history, 1835:THE FOUNDING OF MELBOURNE and THE CONQUEST OF AUSTRALIA by James Boyce (2011) was being discussed on television, where I recollect a statistic quoted, that within the first 15 years of white settlement in Victoria (which was an illegal settlement on British Rulings) 80% of the indigenous population had 'disappeared'! Clover Moore and the Sydney Council Indigenous argument over the wording “invasion” versus “settlement” was still clanging around my brain as well.

Before my break to Tasmania and Melbourne, I had seen a modest but movingly contemporary Indigenous work called BILLY BEEF STEW at the PACT Theatre space. No money, little resource but passion and lived (and contemporary) experiences that had found a means to artistically capture an Indigenous response to living in Australia in 2011, for an audience of all kinds. To then see at one of the leading, and supposedly socially aware, leading Australian theatre companies, Belvoir St, presenting such a ‘worthy’, but in my experience, comatose work was, is distressing.

A walk of 30 metres across the road from the Downstairs Theatre into the government housing buildings would bring the dramaturges and project development and commissioning officers of Belvoir St. into contemporary and vital indigenous stories. Walk to the corner of Crown St and Cleveland St (scary names?) 200 metres east, and go into the Redfern Shopping Mall or wait for a bus on that corner and you will be engaged in indigenous and disadvantaged contemporary social history. Walk four or five hundred metres south, down Elizabeth St into Redfern and Waterloo - a frightening aggregation of street and suburb names around there - ironic, I’d say - and you will have more material for relevant indigenous stories that need to be told.

DARE TO KNOW is my new motto for some of my theatre going. DARE, US, TO KNOW. The Balnaves Foundation deserve better than WINDMILL BABY. We, the audience deserve better leadership then WINDMILL BABY on the Belvoir St stages.

Big hART with their production of NAMATJIRA at Belvoir St. last year, began a gentle political engagement with the Sydney audience in the Belvoir space. It was something but not enough. It was just a gentle breeze of politics. But within the glamorous production package, it may not have had the clout that I believe the contemporary Indigenous artist is restlessly trying to find a means to express. Young indigenous artists, friends of mine, students of mine, are anxious to find the means to tell of their and their families and ‘mob’ experiences and lives. If Belvoir were more active in seeking and guiding these young men and women we might see the controversy and health that the National Theatre in London seems to provoke with new work that looks unflinchingly at their society (Richard Bean’s ENGLAND PEOPLE VERY NICE, for instance). The Balnaves Foundation could then rightfully be rewarded for their hopeful and faithful aspirations “to create a better Australia through education, medicine and arts with a focus on young people, the disadvantaged and indigenous communities” at Belvoir St Theatre.

Stephen Gray in his review, in the Australian Review magazine, Saturday, July2-3, 2011 of BEYOND WHITE GUILT:THE REAL CHALLENGE FOR BLACK AND WHITE RELATIONS IN AUSTRALIA By Sarah Maddison (Allen&Unwin), begins: “This book is an invitation – or rather a fierce and passionate challenge – to take another look at our silence over the destructive aspects of white treatment of Aboriginal people, a silence that, as the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner once said, sticks out “like a foot from a shallow grave”. It is not enough to feel, by having Kevin Rudd apologize on the part of the government of Australia to the Indigenous people that our part is over, that our assuaged conscience can now rest in peace.

Maddison argues that “We must begin the ‘adaptive work” of accepting our collective guilt and responsibility of our past. What this might mean, exactly, is the real subject of BEYOND WHITE GUILT. It could mean a serious debate on constitutional change to recognize Aboriginal people, the difficult mechanics of which would require a broad consensus and bipartisan support. Or we might revisit the dreaded word of “genocide”, recognising that it accords with much Aboriginal experience, and international law, even if it is inconsistent with white Australian understanding of our guilt. More deeply, Maddison argues we should ‘break the bonds of solidarity with the perpetrators”, thereby entering a new dialogue with those we have harmed. She also admits such a process is ultimately emotional and non-rational in nature, but which, in any case, is far from the bitter and immature mudslinging of the “history wars.” “

Heady paragraph, above, and what does it have to do with WINDMILL BABY? Everything I should reckon if we are an artistic community attempting to reflect the real worlds we live in. For the arts not to try to engage in this ‘minefield’ of our lives, might invite some of the catastrophe of the calamity in Britain in recent weeks. Neglect and selective ignorance cannot be healthy for anyone, the poor and disadvantaged, the discriminated or the rich, privileged and wilfully ignorant. The beggar or the banker.

Yes, SAMSON AND DELILAH is happening, is real, folks. So is the local neighbourhood of Belvoir St, Theatre. Let’s really get responsible and change through our art, our perspectives on living in 2011.

WINDMILL BABY was a grave disappointment.


Mr Mink said...

Dear oh dear, Kevin, I must say that this is the "grumpiest" review of yours that I think I have ever read! it is therefore difficult to know where to begin in making a riposte to the very strong views expressed in your piece. So let's start with the simple things first.

You at least start with complimenting the set design etc - it was effectively one of the most "expansive" set designs seen in the Downstairs space which I have seen. In a strange way it much smaller downstairs space is in some ways more versatile (on a much smaller scale) than the upstairs. I would agree that Ms MacDonald comes over with the personal charm you refer to. My friend and I agreed that she moved relatively well between the multiple characters that she had to impersonate so to speak. You were carried along with the story (although you clearly were not unfortunately). However you then effectively have a bit of a pop at the director Ms Farmer for not bringing more out of this performance. You refer to "witnessing of a wearisome educated remembrance of a text. Words in storytelling order with no under thought or true emotion". The script did therefore not entirely appear to impress you either. However from my own background reading, even though you dismiss it as being "old" (6 years is old - what would Shakespeare say?) it was entirely based on and informed by interviews with station hands etc who had been exactly in this position. Which would appear to be entirely PC story gathering to me. You chose not to refer to any inadequate editing etc in your comments. It seems that the same position as to effective communal provenance applied to last year's production of Namatjira. I have had a look back at your review of that from October 2010. You refer to the concepts of Billington as to Entertainment, Enlightenment and Ecstasy - and agreed that Enlightenment did it for you on that occasion. I must admit that I approached that production of Namatjira with a certain trepidation as to it potentially being chocolate box "soft and fluffy". However I was also won over by that production which told me a lot of things that I did not know about the Man, the Artist. I think it has also been touring the country and will certainly be on in Wollongong shortly.

Mr Mink said...

Pt 2 -However back to Windmill Baby where your comments become increasingly dyspeptic. It seems that your then recent experiences with visits to Tasmania and Melbourne, not to mention your attendance at Billy Beef Stew, seem to have resulted in an unfortunate obligation on black fella theatre to be totally black arm band and must be socially relevant to local contemporary conditions. The unfortunate fact that the Belvoir theatre is situated close to public housing areas in Redfern and so on appears to heavily weigh on your mind and therefore requires a reflection of that contemporary reality on stage at Belvoir. Unfortunately as far as I know Windmill Baby was actually intended to reflect the situation on a red dirt station in WA, which is a bit far from Elizabeth Street/Waterloo! This is an unrealistic expectation I would suggest. However with regard to your wish list for aboriginal theatre Jack Charles v the Crown would therefore appear to be the dream ticket. Aboriginal man - tick - heroin addict and prisoner - big ticks. Unfortunately Jack Charles was the equal worst production (with the dreadful Measure for Measure) at Belvoir in my view so far this year. It effectively recycled a film that had already been made, which was partly included in the performance, and I would suggest made the whole stage production thing completely unnecessary. (I posted my negative comments about Jack Charles essentially being very "undercooked" to the James Waites blog rather than recycling them on yours). I might perhaps agree that simply taking the available funds from the Balnave Foundation might be "easy" for Aboriginal themed projects - and at least Belvoir presents them (as against the white bread STC). However they should also ultimately be artistically worthwhile.

My friend and I effectively agreed that Windmill Baby was a good night in the theatre on all counts. Both you and I agreed that Namatjira was ditto. However the apparent credo that you set out in this commentary piece that all black theatre must be of contemporary social relevance a la Samson and Delilah was given the lie to by the Jack Charles production which should have been, but definitely was not, and failed in a number of facets. Windmill Baby was after all only one aspect (successful to me anyway) of relatively contemporary Aboriginal life. Sorry this is somewhat after the event -- I originally read it upon coming home from the Bangarra production of Belong and was sufficiently outraged but never came to put pen to paper so to speak.