Thursday, December 7, 2017

Barbara And The Camp Dogs

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir and Vicki Gordon Music Productions present BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS, by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, in the Upstairs Belvoir, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. 2-23 December.

"Now let in the love", are the final words of the song of this new Australian play (with music): BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS, co-written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine.

It is an irresistible invitation and love is what permeated the tremendous reception that the audience gave this performance/this play. In between the opening song which begins with the lyrics: "Look at the sun and do not even flinch" and this final invitation, we have met two sisters, Barbara (Ursula Yovich) and Rene (Elaine Crombie), songsters, and have been taken on a journey from the city back to country and family - to Katherine, in the Northern Territory, to their mother and Joseph (Troy Brady). It has heart and deep, deep soul. It is riotously funny and empathetically sad. It deals with the politics of family and of the nation.

Barbara: You got your phone?
Rene: Why?
Barbara: You might want to record this, 'cause it's only going to happen once.
Rene: Whatever it is, Barbara, it's too late.
Barbara: I love you, Rene. You're my sister and you've looked after me.
Rene: ...
Barbara: I love you. I love mum. And I'm sorry I wasn't here. I'm sorry for letting you go through that alone. I wish I could go back and ... I'm sorry Rene.
Rene: Yeah. Well, I know that right now, in the moment, you really mean it Barbara. I'm just over in the moment, especially in your moment. But I'm grateful you've said it.
Barbara: (with a shrug) Okay. ...

Barbara:  ...  She screams. 
You hate us 'cause we're black or pity us 'cause we're black. Which is worse? You whitefellas have an infection that makes you think that I am really different. Shit, You get crazy with hatred or crazy with guilt, one minute we're more real and the next we're primitive natives. This is the meanest, pettiest, most ungenerous country in the world. Because at the heart of this country is theft, and now the whole place crouches, waiting, calculating about when it is going to be stolen back from them. Because nobody fears being thieved from as much as a pack of thieves, a gang, a group. A nation. And I understand theft. Of community, of culture, of language, of family. Belonging. I wanted to belong somewhere, and I never belonged here. And I think of Mum Tanya, of my dad, of my brother Joseph. I mostly think of Mum Jill in that hospital, waiting, thinking I don't care.
This play began after a meeting between writer Alana Valentine and Ursula Yovich at an Awards after-party. In the euphoria and disinhibiting atmosphere of that time and space, Alana met an alter-ego of Ursula's called 'Barbara'. From the program notes:
Barbara was pissed off, ramped up, foul-mouthed, shamelessly sexual, flirtatious, and dangerous. ... She was wild-eyed, hip shaking, loud-laughing and brilliant good fun. ... a version of First Nations female power to conjure stereotype-busting magic with.
That was in 2008. Then in 2010 Vicki Gordon (one of the co-producers of this production) began managing Ursula's music career and encouraged Alana to work together with Ursula for a show for 'Barbara'. That was seven years ago and like all good things that are given time to gestate we have Barbara on stage that launches the audience into a revelatory, confronting, raucous, wonderful, releasing act of LOVE.

Barbara is angry. Barbara because of that anger is a very difficult person to know, to be with. The reason for that anger is what you need to wait for the play to tell you about - no spoilers here. It is in that anger that her sister, Rene, has had to find a way to love in a mine-field of behavioural difficulties, laid out by her sister. It is astonishing to witness her generous nature in the blast furnace of Barbara's injured temperament. But, that anger is also the source of Barbara's and Rene's artistry as songwriters and singers. There is loving delicate insight and pain in the lyrics. There is pain and spectacular love in the music. There is, best of all, an astounding pain and love in the voices of these two artists and brother, Joseph, late in the play.

In the play form around the musical elements there are insightful look-ins into the family culture of our indigenous sisters and their family. Her sister, Rene, is part of Barbara's Musical Act and the co-dependent knowledge that siblings have, permits a rapport of uninhibited verbal interactions that only bound-'refugees' in a hostile world trying to survive can have. It is hilarious and an insight into a culture of support that I last saw in Kylie Coolwell's play of 2015 - THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO, and was an assurance of the goodness that shines through and can survive with simple but meaningful acts of kindness. In this play those acts of kindness from Rene balance and brave-out the heat of Barbara's acts of anger. Good is defined by small but generous gestures of kindness.

Ursula Yovich, co-wrote this work with Alana Valentine, and together they have created Barbara, a character that permits Ms Yovich to unleash her gifts with open-hearted and fearless conviction - singing and acting. This is Ms Yovich clear-eyed and raw, at her very best, uninhibited by another writer's character and is released with a firm trust in the material of the play, and with her magnificent musical gifts, celebrated in a naked spotlight of soaring beauty, telling a necessary story. Recently, Ms Yovich created another Barbara in Katherine Thomson's play DIVING FOR PEARLS, and, undoubtedly, it was good work, but this performance is in a glorious stratosphere way beyond anything we saw on the SBW stage.

 I remember Ms Yovich in Neil Armfield's production of THE SECRET RIVER and watched her struggle, struggle well, but still in a struggle to find complete conviction with her responsibilities until, towards the play's end, she came forward and sang a lament of grief for her Indigenous ancestors that lifted the atmosphere of the production into a profound statement of horror and bloody murder, transcending the banal world of colonial Sydney, of the Roslyn Packer Theatre, into a place of universal transcendence and insight to the agony of the human that has less power of force, facing down the ruthless needs of colonisation. The fate of many indigenous populations around the world in the history of European exploration and invasion were spoken of then. So, here, Ms Yovich with her tailored character of Barbara, has a identification/personalisation that permits a rawness of truths that are similarly profound.

Balancing this performance is a wonder of generosity of insight in the creation of Rene by Elaine Crombie. I am less familiar with this actor's work but am in awe of the sensitivity, patience and instinctive grace that she brings to Rene. The writing is good but Ms Crombie seems to radiate a natural quality of goodness and endless love (one of her character's favourite songs - that Barbara won't let her ever sing). The quality of acting is wonderful and the musical gifts she has as a singer is not shaded beside that of Ms Yovich. The voices are an empathetic joining of comfortable artists, inspired by the urgency of what they have to say.

The late entrance of the character, Joseph, introduces us to a third vocalist of heartfelt crafting and revelatory soul reflection. This is Troy Brady, who up to that entrance has been the 'roadie' of this story endowing every entrance and task with a character rich persona that though nearly invisible is a life force of quiet contribution to the sensibility of the tone of the production.

It is in the musical offers by songwriters, Alana Valentine, Ursula Yovich and Adm Ventoura, with small contributions from Vicki Gordon (Tick Sister), Merenia Gillies (Chained to You) and James Warwick Shipton (Pieces), under the Musical Direction of Jessica Dunn (bass guitar) with Michelle Vincent (drums) and Debbie Yap (lead guitar), who are the play's band: THE CAMP DOGS, that may throw out a challenge for Best Australian Musical to MURIEL'S WEDDING, now at the Sydney Theatre Company - very different in genre but immensely, overwhelmingly, effective in the auditorium - no small achievement from Sound Design, by Steve Toulmin, I'm sure. The presence of the band is sexy and thrilling, their presence heating up the venue with a delectable energy and developing an appetite, from us, for a wanting of more.

That energy is transcribed to us, is part of the seduction of Stephen Curtis' pub design, especially, with that gaudy pub carpet and golden and crimson velveteen furniture (that accommodates an on-stage audience), and a few tricks to take us into a yacht-gig on the harbour, or on a road trip to the outback of country on a motor bike with a hot hack, lit with panache (and a subtle beauty) by Karen Norris, to keep us in permanent thrall to the unravelling of the story. The Costume Design by Chloe Greaves is another subtle contributor to the affect of this production - the sari moments unforgettable.

A I recollected when watching A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE recently, great experiences come from the source of the writer (the writer in my personal mantra is GOD), in that case it was Arthur Miller, in this case, Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, which then with the right talent in all areas, can create a spectacular experience in the theatre (or cinema). It is a near miracle of accident when it all clicks, and thankfully, it happens often enough for us who go to the theatre regularly, and repeatedly, to encourage us to seek it out. Rare but it does happen. And here it IS. And not to try and get a ticket would suggest a kind of wilful madness on your part, if you love the theatre, despite the rock band, which might give you hesitation - or not - it is assuredly a tender rock and soul ballad yearning. Do go.

So, last, but definitely not least, one must acknowledge the 'invisible' work of the Director Leticia Caceres with BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS. It is great work, and great, no less, because of its egoless invisibility. And as I peruse what other offers Ms Caceres has given us at Belvoir: THE DROVER'S WIFE, MORTIDO, MISS JULIE and THE DARK ROOM, one must come to conclude that there is some remarkable talent here. The great seamless and 'invisible' work, on the Upstairs Belvoir stage is the sign, for me, of a true artist, not flaunting her gifts, which are, nevertheless, intrinsically, the essential 'glue' and impetus for BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS to BE. To exist transcendently as an entertaining and important night in the theatre. The performance she has coaxed from these players (particularly, I noticed, with the dual role that Mr Brady gives) is magical.

With THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO, and last year's THE DROVER'S WIFE , BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS have lifted, for me, the indigenous experience into brilliant theatre of tremendous cultural importance for all of contemporary Australia. Congratulations Belvoir, it seems that there is recovery of reputation going on. This year, HIR, GHOSTS, ATLANTIS, and now this. No argument against that, really. I've been having a grateful time. I should tell you all that I have bought tickets for friends for Christmas and am going again. Now there is a palpable gesture to my conviction about this production. Yes?

My final thought last night as I went home was: here is a more radical screen musical that will sit quite comfortably and in a very challenging way with THE SAPPHIRES. Anyone?

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