Light the lamps, girl. Keep the night away. Let the world know we’re here. As if the world cares. So begins Holy Day, Andrew Bovell’s latest play which opened last week with the Sydney Theatre Company. The lines are uttered by Nora (Pamela Rabe), who chops wood at dusk at her remote outback home, immediately evoking a sense of both geographical and cultural isolation. Nora is talking to her adopted (though perhaps stolen) Aboriginal daughter, whom Nora has named Obedience (Natasha Wanganeen, from Rabbit-Proof Fence). Allegory shimmers in the air like a desert haze, and the vision is beautiful.

Perhaps the strongest reason why Holy Day works is the play’s success on a narrative level as a mystery, with solid direction and acting assuring a genuinely suspenseful and horrifying thriller. The plot is relatively simple. A missionary’s wife staggers to Nora’s homestead, explaining her husband has been murdered, their church destroyed and her child kidnapped. A young Aboriginal woman is accused of murdering the child, but with the police six days away it’s up to the small group of locals to find out the truth. Three drifters become enmeshed in the conflict, the immigrant Epstein (Mitchell Butel), the violent Goundry (Steve Le Marquand), and the silent Cornelius (Abe Forsythe), a young mute whom Goundry summarily rapes.

There have been many plays that have attempted to explore the white Australian identity with varying degrees of success, from classics like Rusty Bugles and Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll to more self-conscious efforts like Hannie Rayson’s Inheritance, Nick Enright’s NIDA project Country Music and the lesser-known Asylum by David McCartney. Holy Day is among the best of them.

Bovell’s previous works include the play Speaking In Tongues (which he adapted into the screenplay for Lantana), a co-writing credit for Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class? and the screenplay for Head On. His dialogue cuts like diamond wire and his embrace of the big picture is fearless. Somehow Holy Day manages to evoke the plight of immigrants, the stolen generation and even the Lindy Chamberlain case while staying grounded in the play’s mid-19th century setting.

Yes, the second act drags a little and the text could do with a little more paring down. Yes, the set could spin around a little less often. It’s not perfect. But with the stunning Pamela Rabe armed with such a rich character and bold lines, this should be an enormous critical and commercial success.

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