Friday, 24 April 2015

Black Diggers by Tom Wright, 23 April 2015 ***1/2

Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne; originally produced by Queensland Theatre Company & Sydney Festival
Playhouse Arts Centre Melbourne, until 26 April 2015
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Full review also in Herald Sun online today, Fri 24 April 2015 and in print on Sunday. KH

 The horrors of war, the pain of prejudice and the solace of mateship combine in Black Diggers, Tom Wright’s play about the 1300 unsung, aboriginal soldiers that fought for Australia during World War One.

Wright’s script does not focus on a single narrative or any one character’s story but is, instead, episodic, with 60 short scenes that move swiftly in Wesley Enoch’s production.

Wright based his research on the many and varied stories of young, indigenous men who volunteered for service, despite not being recognised as citizens of their own country at that time.

Although the acting is uneven, these nine actors (Eliah Watego, George Bostock, Tibian Wyles, Colin Smith, Shaka Cook, Kirk Page, Guy Simon, Luke Carroll, Trevor Jamieson) tell the soldiers’ stories with commitment and care, honouring their memory, although the contribution of those veterans is not documented formally in our history books.

The play divides into five periods, including the years before Federation, Enlistment, The Theatre Of War on the Western Front, Turkey and Palestine, the Return to Australia and the Legacy of the war.

There are several poignant scenes, including the intimate moment when a mother and grandfather try to dissuade their lad from enlisting.

Another depicts a soldier death and his mate fretting about how to bring the dead man’s spirit home to his own land when his body will lie in foreign fields.

The survivor’s agony is palpable when that same man returns from war a mute and broken man clutching a jar of dirt from his friend’s death place.

We also witness the heartbreaking monologue of a dead soldier whose spirit is doomed to roam the rivers and fields of an alien land.

There are joyful or playful moments when we witness the indigenous men united with their white colleagues, singing, celebrating small victories, sharing a beer or laughing at cultural misconceptions about aboriginal people.

Three cheeky boys attempt to enlist by changing their names, ages and claiming that they are ‘substantially European’ in parentage.

With Anzac Day upon us, this play is timely and Wright’s embedded socio-political commentary raises our awareness of the racial injustice of both that period and the present.

It is evident that each aboriginal soldier’s story was different, with some being welcomed by their white mates on the battlefield and at home.

Others experienced racial prejudice and bigotry, were rejected as Australians on their return and denied land grants that were provided to white veterans.

Stephen Curtis’ spare design incorporates a black wall on which the men sketch names, places and dates that they later smudge into illegibility as the chaos of war consumes them.

‘Lest We Forget’ is written in enormous letters over the fading names of the dead soldiers.

The production is bumpy in parts and has several false endings, but it touches the heart and awakens us to the war experiences of aboriginal soldiers that deserve a greater role in our military history.

Perhaps this play will prompt more people to pass on their family’s oral history to the War Museum in Canberra.

By Kate Herbert 

Black Diggers

Tom Wright - writer

Wesley Enoch - director

Stephen Curtis - designer

Costume Ruby Langton-Batty - costume

Eliah Watego, George Bostock, Tibian Wyles, Colin Smith, Shaka Cook, Kirk Page, Guy Simon, Luke Carroll, Trevor Jamieson
John Mansfield - bugler


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