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October 21, 2022

Theatre Review: The Demon

The Demon explores the dark past in Australia’s colonial history, its effects on First Nations people and later on migrant minorities both Asian and Middle Eastern. This bold production is a grim journey – often compelling, but sometimes hampered by its own theatrical ambition.

Written by Murray Bramwell

The Demon is the kind of project we look forward to with the OzAsia program. Like Light, Thomas Henning’s discursive account of Adelaide’s Colonel William Light and his tribulations with the East India Company, in the 2019 OzAsia festival, The Demon delves and reframes a colonial past, trading smug false history for contemporary re-evaluation and critique.

Written by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (with conceptual input and dialogue from director Rachael Swain, script editor Tony Ayers, Samantha Hogg and Janette Chen) The Demon draws on the infamous events on the Burrangong goldfields in New South Wales in 1861 where, in the Lambing Flat Riots, thousands of white miners savagely attacked and injured Chinese workers, dispossessing them of their claims and driving them out of the region.

It was yet another example of systematic racism in the colony, and forerunner to the infamous White Australia policy which continued, to our shame, well into the 20th century. These events are the basis of the play; ghosts and travesties from the past, haunting the hearts and minds of those in the present day. The program notes describe a continuum from the goldfield riots to post- 9/11 events such as the Cronulla riots, as well as the George Floyd murder in the US, and ongoing First Nations deaths in custody in Australia.

The multiple stories bring together three protagonists. First, is Chinese Australian streetfighter, Wei (a splendid dancerly performance by Yvonne Huang) who witnesses the murder of her friend, Ivan, and is pursued by two post-Noir, Tarantino-style detectives, Jihad and Mohammed.

The troubled Jihad (strongly played by Johnny Nasser) has joined the force to avenge the death, in an Asian street fight, of his Lebanese brother, Omar. His offsider is Matthew, now called Mohammed, (the excellent Kirk Page) a First Nations man converted to Islam. Each has a unique ancestry, but all are direct victims of racism and white supremist cruelty. Complicating matters, Jihad also has more than his share of verbal slurs and contempt for Asians and his Aboriginal colleague.

Director Rachael Swain has a challenging task keeping the various narrative threads lucid and manageable, especially as the story is mixed with Gavin Webber’s stylised choreography, acrobatic action sequences, flashbacks, and ghosts from the 19th century – including Wei’s ancestral great-grandmother, Daphne (Christy Tran) and (played with reptilian malice by Joshua Thomson) the Demon himself, a malevolent composite of a white Burrangong miner and a 1980s racist skinhead, wearing under his waistcoat a T-shirt emblazoned with a variant of the Eureka flag.

Stephen Curtis’s design uses a large calico scrim curtain as backdrop to the opening tableau of the two figures – the Demon and the Chinese woman, Daphne in hand-to-hand combat. Subsequently, the urban scenes are staged on red steel rigging (expressionistically lit by Damien Cooper) and include a makeshift metal frame car for the road trip scene.

The score and sound design by Nick Wales and Bob Scott is an insinuating swirl of atmospheric electronica and heavy beats, accentuating the sense of portent and danger as the characters move closer to confrontation with their ghostly nemesis.

The Demon is an ambitious work seeking to merge naturalistic and surreal and unearthly elements, some of which are a challenge to stage. It is a sad fact that cinema effects have a speed and intensity that cannot easily be matched live, and some sequences fall short, despite the overall strengths of the production. Similarly, the dialogue at times moves awkwardly from the vernacular to the oracular, breaking the stride and the momentum of the production.

This production raises important questions and uncovers uncomfortable truths that need to be remembered, but on first night it feels like a work in progress. The Demon, perhaps, still has to solve some theatrical gremlins of its own.

The Demon is playing in the Dunstan Playhouse for two further performancesFriday October 21 at 7.30 and Saturday October 22 at 1.30.

InDaily October 21, 2022.

OzAsia review: The Demon

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