September 01, 2001

Contested Ground

Holy Day
by Andrew Bovell

State Theatre Company
August, 2001

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

The pursuit of new Australian works for the stage is an incessant one. Artistic Directors, particularly of state theatre companies, pore over new scripts in the hope of turning them into productions which will capture audiences with their relevance and truthfulness. Over the past twenty years the demand for such plays has been so keen that any writer achieving a modicum of success has been pursued like a golden goose to produce more eggs.

Thus for ten years or so we saw a phase of nerve-wracking commissioning which only seemed to make directors jumpy and playwrights feel like they had been locked in a room full of straw without the services of Rumpelstiltskin. Plays were programmed in new season brochures before they had even been written, others limped into production with all the vital signs of contractual obligation. Many talented writers were chewed up by negative reception and companies began to regard the new Australian repertoire as a plague of boils.

So when State Theatre Company director Rosalba Clemente announced the establishment Faulding On Site Laboratory that sounded like a good idea – giving carefully selected works time for development and revision instead of rushing to production. Then we heard no more about this industrial sounding laboratory. Until now, with the launch of the premiere season of Andrew Bovell’s Holy Day.

Bovell, now based in Willunga, is a well-established writer with a variety of impressive film and stage credits. These include Strictly Ballroom with Baz Luhrmann, and his play, Speaking in Tongues, which has toured widely, enjoyed a season in London, is about to have a New York run, and has been adapted into the film Lantana featuring Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush. The connection with former Adelaide actor LaPaglia has also led to Bovell being asked to write a screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.

So the time spent in script development with a writer of this calibre has been worth it. Holy Day is a demanding play which is as ambitious as it is courageous . Set in mid-nineteenth century Australia its location is indeterminate but its subject is not. It is about the privations and harshness experienced by the first white settlers and their perpetual fear of, and incipient violence towards, Aboriginal communities. In the opening scene a large cross erupts into flame and a woman appears at a traveller’s rest. She is the wife of the missionary and, in extreme distress, she reports that her child has been stolen and the church burnt to the ground. She blames the natives but the local Europeans are divided in their opinions.

Nora, the hard as nails Irishwoman, who runs the hostelry with her adopted Aboriginal daughter, Obedience, has her doubts about the story. The ruffian Goundry, leading his unwilling companions Epstein and the mute boy Cornelius wants to mount a violent reprisal. The would-be grazier Wakefield endeavours to maintain the rule of law but when faced with Linda, an Aboriginal woman who is accused of the crime but refuses to speak in her own defence, he becomes overwhelmed by the immensities of the situation.

Director Rosalba Clemente has brought a strength and stillness to this production which complements the directness of Bovell’s text. The set, designed by Cath Cantlon, succeeds not only in providing versatility for the narrative but contributes the kind of visual dimension you might expect of an art installation. Downstage are the few literal requirements for the interior scenes at the travellers’ rest while looming behind is a raked expanse, in pale timber, inscribed like a map or a manuscript of some kind. On the black backdrop, featuring a charred cross, the words terra nullius loom large, providing a constant silent irony as the two cultures collide. Bernie Lynch’s mournful soundscape and Mark Shelton’s desert lighting aptly integrate the mise-en-scene.

The cast is excellent. Kerry Walker as Nora reminds us of Brecht’s Mother Courage, a woman of tremendous misplaced resilience, who sees commerce in every situation and stands her ground against even the malevolently violent Goundrey, played by Dino Marnika. Offering sexual favours to protect Obedience even as she dispossesses her of culture and identity, Walker’s performance shows Nora as both sardonic and as ruthless as the environment she inhabits. There is a sense that all of the Europeans have been in some way excoriated by the experiences which brought them to this new land yet, all the same, none wishes to return.

Frank Gallacher, always a strong presence, plays the contradictions in Wakefield to good effect. We see his wish to conduct himself in a fair-minded way but the silent pact he later makes with Elizabeth, the missionary’s wife ( Mandy McElhinney) is sinister in its moral abdication. As Linda, the defiant Aboriginal woman, Rachael Maza is compelling. Abused and chained to a stake, she is tethered like a scapegoat but her silence and then her false confession are those of a prisoner of war. The fate of the young people, Obedience and Cornelius, played by Melodie Reynolds and Cameron Goodall, is also tragically signified in their mutilation and enforced silence.

With its unexplained events and disappearances Holy Day is a mystery which has us intrigued. With its evocation of the brutality and difficulty of life, as well as the energy and vitality of a new world, it tells us, through fiction, some of the truth of the colonial experience. The cruelties and violence of this life and its crisis of belief , we are reminded, have shaped much of the ethos of our society. It is fitting that this production of Andrew Bovell’s unsparing story has been programmed as part of South Australia’s Centenary of Federation celebration because its insights and implications are part of the discussion that many Australians are having about our history, both the record of our achievements and our shame.

It is the business of artists to explore these often difficult subjects – our painters often have. Until recently our playwrights and other fiction writers have been less willing. With this production, the State Theatre Company has made a significant contribution and Andrew Bovell has given us a mature new work which deserves not only a wide audience but an appreciative one.

“Contested Ground” The Adelaide Review, No. 216, September, 2001, p.29.

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