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Photograph by Joseph Mayers

7 Stages of Grieving

Sydney Theatre Company presents, 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, at the Wharf Theatre, Hickson Rd Sydney.  21st May - 17th June 2021.

This production of 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, written in 1994 – 1995, by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, is the fourth one devised by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). The first production was performed by Deborah Mailman and directed by Wesley Enoch. This new production is performed by Elaine Crombie and Directed by Shari Sebbens.

In the 26 years since the original production Time and History has happened. In the reading of the content of the original play, based (built) around the structure from the profoundly influential book by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: ON DEATH AND DYING (1969), certainly Time has passed if not much pertinent History, too. The grieving of the Indigenous artists involved in this new production (and of their brothers and sisters in their everyday experiences in 2021) is still as deeply felt now as then. What has changed? Not much, this production reveals.

It seemed to me that Ms Sebbens and Crombie had been working with one of the original writers, Wesley Enoch, in making subtle changes to the original scene text to make its telling a truly contemporary one. With permission, these artists have made changes, and also added an ‘epilogue’,  which pierces the fourth wall of the theatre-stage and collapses it into a definite conversation in the last section of the performance – between those doing and those that have been watching and listening, the performers and the audience.

This production has made some adjustment in the design elements of the original play. First, Elizabeth Gadsby, has created banks of midden featuring shells, bones and other materials across the width of the stage that have washed up over time, to create for Ms Crombie, a space of an ever evolving accumulation of history, that became, she has said, a deeply personalised historical projection: Ms Crombie is not alone on this stage in telling her story anymore, she is surrounded by the visual ‘evidence’ of her people. The stage visuals, with permission, have been influenced by the Quandamooka artist, Megan Cope – with connection to Stradbroke Island. In Ms Gadsby’s design it is an effective set of black ‘rises’ covered in white shell-like shapes, while other introduced properties are mostly stark contrasts, perhaps, being signs of hope, tokens splashed with colour for the future. Secondly, the Design has a large back wall screen, that presents text messages in white and grey video imagery, managed by Verity Hampson, to great emotional effect. The personalised photographs of Ms Crombie’s family are not screened as in the original with Ms Mailman, the audience is invited to endow from their own life history.

Ms Sebbens, helps tell the original play’s ambitions in presenting a “Testament of Love, Family and Resilience”. However, she and all the gathered artists, involved in the present 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, go, actively further, in the tradition of the theatre that originated in the known expressed needs of the surviving texts of our Western heritage: the Greek Theatre, and evidenced later in the provocation of the Group Theatre’s production of WAITING FOR LEFTY (1935), by Clifford Odets, that uses, as does 7-Stages, a series of related vignettes, illustrating a powerful social grief, to frame a ‘meeting’ to inspire its audiences into action – to “strike” for change. And, this is in not just the warm pleasure of the joint expression of a group sharing, choir-like, the joys of singing in a group in harmony, but to engage and provoke the audience to DO something, to go into ACTION, using a giant QR code projected on the back wall screen of the stage, that they can capture with the click of their mobile phones: a link to a page on the STC website “The 7 Actions of Healing” – that visitors can use to sign petitions, follow and contribute to conversations social media, and make donations with.  We the audience are weaponised. Will you Do something? Will you help facilitate change – to right the social injustice, that rests in the minds and hands of our elected representatives? Your representers?

This production of 7-STAGES OF GRIEVING, becomes an ‘agent provocateur’.  It becomes what some regard the play by Beaumarchais (1784) and the  more influential, the opera, by Mozart: THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO (1786)  did – it helped create a Revolution in France (1789). It provoked Social Change.  It is what Orlando Figes illustrates in his book: THE EUROPEANS (2019), of the power of Opera (Performance Art), in the nineteenth century as a tool of provocation for Change. From Mozart through Wagner, Verdi et al. What Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA (1994-5) helped in the National and State governments of the United States to an awakening in their attitude to the funding for research into the AIDS virus. Who would of thought the STC to be such an agent of change? Not enough of us, I’m afraid!

Whatever the gifts Ms Crombie may have as an actor, in this performance, it is with certainty, her personal charm – despite the need for stage management prompting – that wins the audience into attending to her personal story, her First Nations historical and daily experience. Ms Sebbens has lifted the revival of this important Australian play from just a shared testament of grief of our Indigenous brothers and sisters into an urgent demand for Social Justice and Action. One that asks its audience to have more than a shared warm identification and appreciation of our First Nation Peoples inflicted tragedy, but to encourage by facilitation to switch on their mobile phones and use it as a weapon for social justice. For real change. Not just mouthed homilies of intention. Ms Crombie is a force of charm harnessed to serve a revolution.

Ms Sebbens was also responsible for the cauterising contemporary production of SEVEN METHODS FOR KILLING KYLIE JENNER, by British writer, Jasmine Lee-Jones, at the Eternity Theatre, in Darlinghurst. It was an exciting night in the theatre of brilliant modernity. A production of a play that similarly raised issues of a marginalised culture that called for a demand for Social Justice – for Social Change.  Ms Sebbens, there, employed a brilliant and unerring aesthetic eye with her designers to serve the play, and with her actors discovered and employed the different musical tempos for the interludes of the text to best serve the play, while highlighting the content with astute clarity.The actors were encouraged to a safe style of convincing comedy with clear voices in demand for change.

Now, with 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, Ms Sebbens, with a different set of Designers, again demonstrates a brilliant and unerring visual aesthetic, one that, this time, is black and white with levels of inter-leaving grey, a harmony exquisite in its studied detail even to the type of font used for the screen messages that hung over the action of the play. Her empathy with her actor – in a one person play – seemed to be one that helped the actor to harness her natural gifts to engage the audience with near accuracy to the writers’ intentions – while there was high achievement in the musical control over the many changes of tempo and ‘colour’ of the written word.

The quality of Directorial achievement in these two works is noteworthy not just in the high contrasting visual and aural offers in each work but in the social, and subtle, responsibility that Ms Sebbens presents in the works that have been given her.

Shari Sebbens is an interesting and Promising Young Woman, indeed. An Actor and Director of some convincing quality.

Will the STC production of 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING cause or provoke change? A social change?

Well, its next performance stop is Canberra. Pull out your headphones and get to it.

But Kevin, realistically? This nation is mostly comatosed and are only too content to hear our Prime Minister, boast, Trumpet, that we are the luckiest and best nation in the world , so why change a thing. Revolution? Never?

But thanks, Ms Sebbens, keep it up and at them.