Thursday, 10 September 2009

COOK: an exploration ***

Adapted by Peter Finlay
La Mama, Carlton  Sept 9- 20, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If Australian history is your thing, COOK: an exploration is just the ticket. In this solo show, Peter Finlay adapts and dramatises Captain James Cook’s ship’s journal from his 1770 voyage of discovery of the eastern coast.

There is no fiddling with Cook’s words. His journal entries, although edited, are used verbatim. What becomes clear is that exploration is only occasionally exciting and adventurous. Most of the time Cook’s writings concentrate with excruciating detail on the weather, wind direction and sea depth or the safety of The Endeavour.

After months at sea, we meet him in April 1770 travelling along the New South Wales coast, investigating what he called Terra Nullius. Cook charted the coast and, with Joseph Banks and Dr. Solander, investigated the land.

What is shocking is his almost total disregard for the indigenous people. When the few men who approach him at intervals show any signs of aggression, he fires his musket – then wonders why they will not approach him. He is more concerned about their nakedness – especially the women – and their attempts to pilfer his turtles or to light bush fires than about their culture or welfare.

Finlay, with director Laurence Strangio, creates a simple, short performance that highlights the intensity and detail of Cook’s observations and his lack of genuine interest in the people he encounters. Most of the text is presented as a monologue, although some is a voice over.

 Finlay, wearing cream breeches and shirt, stands in front of projections of a barren, pristine coastline where waves crash against a sandy shore, as if watching from his ship’s bridge. Occasionally he dons a captain’s jacket to patrol the shore and attempt contact with the natives or investigate “a smoke”.

The simplicity of the staging is clearly a conscious theatrical choice and it gives us some insight into Cook’s mental processes and concerns. Finlay’s interpretation of Cook is compelling. However, there is room for greater dramatic development. Further dramatisation of the encounters with natives or Finlay shifting character to play Banks or Solander could create another dramatic layer.

The production is the second in Finlay’s trio of monodramas called Australian Global Documents Project. The first, about Ned Kelly, was based on Jerilderee Letter, the third will be The Mabo Judgment.

By Kate Herbert

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