In Shadows, William Yang commits an entire show to reconciliation and the subjects are his Aboriginal friends, the city of Berlin and the suburbs of Adelaide. He looks for shadows from the past, to acknowledge them in order to move forward. Shadows were present all week at the Sydney Festival: some old, some new.
I’m in the heart of Redfern on Friday night for Crying Baby and Australian Technology Park is packed. As we join the long queue to enter, there’s a distinct buzz and I sense it’s about the unusual landscape. Something about the comparatively massive open space (in the middle of urban sprawl) evokes a circus or a carnival. The theatrical space too seems expansive, but sprawling and with ill- defined borders. Scattered with fires both real and televised, the dirt landscape is soon peopled by various Aboriginal performers and personas -“ urban youth, the rejected poor, an elder, the traditional dancers.
The production was, like most new Aboriginal performance, an education for many present (including me). Myths of the Dreamtime were employed along with traditional dance and a process of development that eschewed narrative or thematic connections and closure. Most effective was the use of the Crying Baby djang (dreaming site), a tale of a child neglected by two tribes, and the horrible retribution of the Rainbow Serpent (in the form of Kunjikuime). Boldly, this story of neglect and punishment within their own culture is used by the Kunwinjku artists as a counterpoint to the stolen generation. Running concurrently to this tale was the story of Thomas Yulidjirri and his familial displacement by a well-meaning priest. By story’s end, the priest and an Aboriginal spirit are swinging from wires in a conflict that has no resolution and ultimately no point, except for the simple expression of rage and sorrow.
Least effective was an overall sense of flow and a disappointing lack of stagecraft. There were often painful gaps in the performance, and the relationships between characters (not to mention groups of stilt-wearing spirits) were sometimes simply unclear. These criticisms are not made lightly. Reconciling Western and Aboriginal traditions of performance is an ongoing national project, the results of which can be confusing to consume and no doubt a struggle to create. Director and writer Rachael Swain describes the work of the company Marrugeku as fragile and difficult, but that vulnerability and instability are inherent in the weaving together of our diverse understandings. Crying Baby has no script but a story map as the evolving text, and the land is beautiful but strange -“ a topography many are still learning to navigate.
Sunday afternoon and a who’s who of theatre -“ including mainstream, physical, circus and even Brisbane/Japanese -“ rocked up to the Opera House to hear Ariane Mnouchkine speak. Under the spotlight was her company, Th?re du Soleil, and the (mostly) democratic philosophies and practices espoused by Mnouchkine. We learned that Th?re du Soleil productions are cast during a rehearsal process, not before; the Paris premiere of The Flood Drummers was postponed for four months because they had not completed their artistic process; and that everyone is paid the same wage (including Mnouchkine herself). The company also prides itself on existing within the real world, a real political environment. A visit to Israel was presaged by an open letter of support for the states of Israel and Palestine, and criticism of political atrocities. They take their touring seriously. Maybe it was my imagination, but at this point the entire audience shifted awkwardly in their seats. Finally, somebody asked about the company’s decision to visit Australia. Then it was Mnouchkine’s turn to shuffle, but she calmly announced that the company was completely shocked about the treatment of the Tampa and the government’s punishment of the refugees. Eventually it was decided that Australia was a democracy and that France (as a democracy) had also been guilty of dubious and horrific political activities. They decided to attend but this does not mean that we were not shocked, Mnouchkine added. The metaphorical neuralgia that is my national embarrassment and shame, which has been growing since the 1996 federal election, burst into a barely manageable migraine at this precise moment.
Finally, this little white boy attended William Yang’s new show Shadows on Monday evening. Out of the context of Yang’s oeuvre, the brief for Shadows reads as either terrifically esoteric or perfectly Aussie, depending on your perspective. Gay Australian-Chinese Yang explores cultural prejudice and racism through a series of journeys that includes outback Enngonia, Berlin and Adelaide. The show is not about being gay or of Chinese descent, but speaks volumes about Yang’s passions and connection to the land. Shadows is an epic journey, in which Yang’s extraordinary array of friends and acquaintances grant him privileged insights into outback Aboriginal communities and the Berlin theatre scene. In Sadness, the connection between two major narratives is left deliberately vague until the conclusion. Here, the links are a little more overt, with parallels between the Holocaust and the genocide of Aboriginal peoples both striking and a little clumsy. Nevertheless this is Yang’s most ambitious work to date, rich with detail and emotion. An understated yet utterly memorable motif is that of food -“ as photographs of meals from baked echidnas to a traditional German cabbage roll are given equal cultural space and attention. Yang’s point too is that racism happens across all cultures, but that now we are part of global culture, we must learn to get along. The flow of images is beautiful and perfectly countered by Yang’s trademark soothing narrative.
As Yang closed on a note of optimism and hope, I was reminded that in Crying Baby, Kunjikuime punishes the selfish tribes by transforming them into the landscape itself, just as the Three Sisters were geomorphed in the Blue Mountains. The lights faded.