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This Heaven

Photo by Brett Boardman

BELVOIR presents THIS HEAVEN by Nakkiah Lui In the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills.

THIS HEAVEN is a small work (70 minutes) with a big emotional bang from a new voice. The new voice is Nakkiah Lui who is a member of the Dhurag community of Western Sydney – having only the week before seen THE SECRET RIVER at The Sydney Theatre – this, for me, was a stunning co-incidence in the arc of two centuries of tragedy. She is currently finishing her Arts/Laws at the University of NEW SOUTH WALES and was an associate playwright at Belvoir in 2012 and a resident in ATYP’s Fresh Ink Playwright Residency, 2010. She is the inaugural recipient of both The Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s Award and the Australia Council’s Dreaming Award. She is currently under commission by Belvoir for her next play, KOORIOKE.

Ms Lui’s voice is indeed new and it is an authentic one. Her play is set in Mount Druitt, today – a part of Sydney rarely ‘visited’ by our dramatic literature and on the floor of ‘debate’ in our theatres. THIS HEAVEN, accounts the response of a marginalized community to a perceived injustice over the result of a ‘death in custody’ investigation. The defining of what is law and what is justice, the intellectual clarity of that, when mixed with suspected criminal behaviours from places, positions of authority on both sides, and generations of mutual mistrust and emotional despair, boils over in this play into senseless, anarchic and savage actions of public violence. Perceived injustice is turned into emotional actions of frightening riot – the cruel scope of the injustice shrieking to heaven.

Th intensity of the production directed by Lee Lewis in this very tiny and confined space, Downstairs Belvoir, certainly has a powerful emotional wallop. One leaves the theatre more than a little disturbed. Unlike the long silence after the final moments of THE SECRET RIVER that led to meditative contemplations with the tragic awe of that story, after this performance, one is literally shocked, shaken and stirred to the conscience core – an experience of a deeply visceral kind still rippling well after the return to the world outside. It was an odd thing to observe the meeting in the foyer of the bubbling PETER PAN audience spilling home, rubbing shoulders with the sombre exhausted members of  the THIS HEAVEN audience. The contrast was a reality of some punch.

Though later, I realised, the mighty physical emotional experience in the theatre, had swept away a lot of the logical flaws in the dramaturgy of the writing in the play, that gives one pause, at home,  as to the play’s formal writing quality. This is a first play and that of a young writer. It shows.

Has it been exposed too precipitously on the stage, especially onto such a prized space of showing and audience? A main stage production.

I pondered the structure of relevancies in the play. We are told through recall from the various characters:

  1. There is a contemporary indigenous family, upwardly mobile: father, Robert Gordon and mother, Joan (Tessa Rose), and two children, Sissy (Jada Alberts) and Ducky (Travis Cardonna) living in the Westrern suburb of Sydney, Mount Druitt.
  2. The father is a highly respected and well known identity in the local community.
  3. The mother, a middle class mum working as a public servant as the Aboriginal liaison officer in the local police station, – a well known identity and member of the police station staff.
  4. The daughter, Sissy is only one semester away from attaining her Law degree – as, coincidently, is the author of this play, Ms Lui.
  5. A blind son, Ducky, is frustrated, unable to find work.
  6. We are told  before the play begins the son Ducky, physically blind and also drunk, drove a car, with the respected member of the community, his father Robert, sitting beside him (odd not pondered in the play). The car runs off the road and into a roadside fence.
  7. The police are called to the incident.
  8. The father lies to the police (Odd. Not pondered in the play) and takes responsibility as the driver (to protect is son?).
  9. The two men are taken into custody and escorted to the local police station.
  10. There is an incident in the cells. Police enter the cell to quell the disturbances.
  11. There is noise of physical abuse heard by a young constable, Ryan (Joshua Anderson) coming from the cells. He goes to check.
  12. He is advised to forget the incident and go home early and forget the incident.
  13. The father is found dead, in custody, in the cell. The family are encouraged to trust the law for justice by lawyer, James (Eden Falk).
  14. The investigation into the incident finds the injuries on the body could be the result of the car accident and not necessarily of a ‘bashing’.
  15. The presence of the son Ducky in the cell and his evidence of what occurred in the cell is discarded because of his blindness.
  16. The investigation declares that there is not sufficient evidence and/or the ambiguity of it is such, that it will not produce an outcome against the police. No action will be taken – the incident will go no further.
  17. The family is offered compensation of $9,000. (Odd. Is that what would happen, as there is no provable crime, no possible way of proving liability against the state? I am not sure. Struck me as odd.)
  18. Son feels remorse and guilt over his part in allowing his father to take the blame as the driver of the car. He does not dwell on his own reckless action of driving the car, doubly incapacitated, which is the catalyst of the whole ‘stream’ of events.
  19. Odd that the Police who would know the high status of the father in the community would risk physically abusing him. Odd, that knowing that he is the husband of one of their own staff, Joan Gordon- the Indigenous Liaison Officer – they would do such a thing.
  20. Odd that the daughter, Sissy, with only one semester from achieving her Law degree did not have the cool of knowledge of the law to have her question her actions and culpability in the organising of the riot. How she could abandon such difficult years of preparation to serve her community as a lawyer? Not dealt with in the play.
  21. Odd that the young police constable, Ryan, does not step up to tell the truth. The systemic pressures being so great as to perpetrate such criminal behaviour. Not pondered too deeply in the play.
  22. That the experienced lawyer is not able to counsel a law student more accurately, and provide legal avenues of action for the family..

Most of these things bothered me in the considered conversations after the performance, not during. I let them pass me by in the torrent of the emotional action of the production. I was swept away without my reason striking up opposition. Some credit, then to Ms Lewis and her company of actors and designers.

So, I ask, should the dramaturgy have been more refined before staging this work? Was the work rushed on to the stage because of political timing rather than a better crafting of the material? Whatever, I only hope that the new commission KOORIOKE is better nurtured and that Ms Lui examines the work more thoroughly, and it is not just a reading after “a night of feverish writing” that compels her to submit it. Because the talent is undoubted and what we have been waiting for – a brave, Indigenous voice telling with the ‘inside’ insight of the living culture of the urban life of the Indigenous peoples. (the television series REDFERN NOW was, similarly a passionate experience). MS Lui’s mixture of the harsh contemporary and stories of Aboriginal myth in the writing was intriguing and beautiful – poetic, with an undeniable authenticity.

Ms Alberts was impressive as the daughter, despite, for me, the lack of reality in her actions, (the choice of Ms Lui – a law student – to write this play rather than throw a Molotov cocktail seems to be the rational action one would expect of Sissy too). Mr Anderson played dimensions of conflict as the police constable, Ryan, and, one felt grounded by Mr Falk’s impeccable work as the hapless lawyer, James. Mr Cardonna had a very difficult character to embody, what with physical and a moral blindness, while Ms Rose tended to demonstrate the emotional turmoils rather than experiencing them – appearance of ‘pretending’ – it did not assist belief or engender tragic veracity from me.

The lighting (Luiz Pampolha) with the claustrophobic haze, abetted with Composition by Steve Francis and Sound Design by Nate Edmondson in the black/box hole with strong silver-metal ‘old school’ park swing equipment, designed by Sophie Fletcher are all collaborators in this emotionally confronting night in the theatre.

With re-writing and editing this play could possibly be a more durable source of investigation and strike more than an emotional chord in the audience. In the hands of a less assured director this work might fail to ignite and shock because of the many dramaturgical imponderables.

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