A man walks onto a blank stage, a possum-skin cloak wrapped around his slight body. His hair and beard frame his face. He speaks, first to the space, then to us. And with a simple gesture, a few chairs, and the drop of a screen, we are in a Victorian parliamentary enquiry from 130-odd years ago. Yet we’re in a small theatre in Surry Hills, watching an important (albeit unapologetically forgotten) piece of our nation’s indigenous history presented to us by indigenous actors; it is their own story as much as the people of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve on the 1880s. Drawn from the official transcript of minutes from the enquiry, Coranderrk is more than just a re-enactment or a piece of verbatim theatre; it’s a story about people, about the land – their land, and about a collective dreaming, a connection that you cannot replace. It’s about belonging, about home. It’s a story that takes place in the 1880s while simultaneously occurring here, now; today.
Originally performed in 2011 by Melbourne-based indigenous theatre company ILBIJERRI, in a piece comprised entirely of official transcripts, it was presented in 2012 at the Sydney Opera House, before being presented with Belvoir in its current incarnation. What is alarming, though, is how similar many of the attitudes of the white European people depicted in the piece are to the current way of thinking; how little things have changed in a century and a half, in over two hundred years of white settlement in
. What Coranderrk gives us, is a glimpse into
how it could be, how it should be. Australia
“I can’t help but imagine,” director Isaac Drandic writes in the program, “what it would be like if the model of Coranderrk was adopted by the government of the day and the community allowed to continue in its efforts to become entirely self-sufficient. What would Aboriginal communities in
look like today if we
built upon the successes of Coranderrk?” Australia
Actor Tom Long, who was in the original
production in 2011, said how from the settler’s open discussion of the ‘solution’
to Coranderrk “you can see the start of the White Australia policy… There is no
disguising what they want – the language is very clear.” Because the indigenous
voices recorded in the inquest’s minutes are identical to the voices of the
indigenous people today, the actors seem to be speaking not in character, but
as themselves, calling for the same recognition, the same rights. Melbourne
There’s an immediacy and a simplicity to Drandic’s staging, enunciated beautifully through the help of Ruby Langton-Batty and Ralph Myers’ set and costumes. It is honest, open, raw, emotional; poignant; true. Like many of the indigenous stories Belvoir has produced in the past few years, there is a strong spirit in Coranderrk, both in connection to the land and its people, as well as to fight and make a stand. And to sit in a crowded darkened theatre and witness it, is a truly humbling experience. It reminds me once again how important place is to Indigenous culture, how powerful words and communities united can be; how resilient and strong their culture is.
The cast are all tremendous – their honesty and willingness to put themselves in the production, between the lines and amongst the ‘characters’, is as brave as it is effective. Led by Jack Charles, the indigenous cast navigate the twenty-odd persons depicted in the production (both black and white) with ease, and a deftness that is beguiling. They switch identities quickly and efficiently as required, yet nothing is lost nor does it ever get confusing as to who they are portraying. Towards the end, after the names of all those on Coranderrk who support the motion for their independence are read out, the actors all step forward with their names; the fight was not ‘then’, nor is it exclusively ‘now’; it is not over, nor will it ever be. The story is as much a part of them as their own personal history. And it reminds me how powerful words are as instigators of change.
“You can take away my country,” Jack Charles says, about halfway through, “but you cannot take away my dreaming.”