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The Long Forgotten Dream

Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Allens present, THE LONG FORGOTTEN DREAM, by H Lawrence Sumner, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. July 23 – August 25.

THE LONG FORGOTTEN DREAM, is a new Australian play, by H Lawrence Sumner.

On the windswept coastline of South Australia’s Coorong region, in a house distant from the local town, a local ‘black’ man, Jeremiah Tucker (Wayne Blair), has isolated himself from community, intensely absorbed in constructing 18th and 19th century European model sailing ships. The coming of old age – perhaps death – has subtly stirred him to the ‘things’ he has not addressed, confronted, dealt with, in his life: those events of his family heritage, and in his own life, that have been neglected and now have begun to haunt him.

Jeremiah is cared for by his sister, Lizzie (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), pragmatic and loving – for she has embraced the classic capitalistic values of the white culture in the selling of ‘artefacts’ (Dot Paintings) of her Indigenous culture to any dupe with ‘white guilt’ to make money and who, in her happily assimilated way, is constantly bringing food from the local supermarket for her isolated brother – no bush tucker for him.

It is the return of his daughter, Simone (Shakira Clanton), from a two year study in Britain, where she has been researching a PhD in archaeology and tracked down the stolen remains of ‘King Tulla’, Jermiah’s grand-father (Ian Wilkes), and organised their return to the ancestral country, that causes the spirits of the passed/past to manifest. As the male elder of his family it is his duty to speak over the bones at the ceremony. He is resistant and only gradually do the ‘summoned’ spirits lead him, terrified, to the formal ‘welcome home’ organised by the local pastor, his now estranged white school friend, Henry Giles (Justin Smith), the heir to the pastoral property, historically wrested from the traditional owners.

The past is always present and is complicated, and, it has never being laid to rest.

The difference of culture, the difference in the ways of understanding the ‘worlds’ we share, we live in, the displacement of one culture through the latter day colonisation of another people: the ‘First Peoples’, who have occupied this land for 40,000 years prior to the recent – just over only 200 years – ‘white’ arrival, is at the centre of this heart felt lament from the writer H Lawrence Sumner.

The insistent claim of the ‘invaders’ culture and its rites to create a means of reconciliation over and above the rights/rites and traditions, with no respect or true knowledge of the First People’s needs, is what Jeremiah rails against. But, with the return of ‘King Tulla’s’ bones, his true past has been conjured and pertinently invades his rigid claims, for those raised spirits, reveal his personal history, that he has suspected and has agonisingly intuited: that he is the son of Indigenous and Invader blood, generated from a forbidden union between his ancestor, ‘King Tulla’, and a white English woman, working on the Giles property, Gladys Dawson (Melissa Jaffer). He is not of one culture but of two. Of two traditions and not one, that he must embrace, perhaps, to be truly whole. He must find some spirituality of equability – can he do so?

This quest, question, concerning the ways and means of moving forward with the assimilation of the two cultures – that of the Indigenous owners and the Western invaders is at the centre of ‘literary’ conversation at the moment, and hopefully, culture/social change to come, sooner rather than later. The recent television series MYSTERY ROAD on the ABC, ‘drifted’, slightly, into this place of observation, and the 2018 Miles Franklin nominee TABOO (2017), by Kim Scott, is eloquently wrestling with the same issue. The novel, THE MAKING OF MARTIN SWALLOW (2018), by historian, Peter Cochrane, and THE SYDNEY WARS (2018), dealing with the conflict in the early colony between 1788-1817, by Stephen Gapps, have occupied some of my reading in the past month. So that this play, THE LONG FORGOTTEN DREAM, is a continuer of that part of my anxious consciousness and hope.

Essentially, this play is a personal struggle, set in the domesticity, the house of the ‘hermit’ protagonist, Jeremiah Tucker. This production by Neil Armfield, on the other hand, in the broad width of the Drama Theatre stage, has embraced, forestaged, the whole width to represent the house-shack room, to tell the story, in exaggerated scale for the actors to traverse, whilst setting the rest of the depth and height of the stage as an optical illusion of epic land and sky scape.

The Designer, Jacob Nash, the house Designer for Bangarra Dance Theatre, who, together, use this theatre as their base for presentation (e.g. the recent prize winning BENNELONG (2017) and DARK EMU (2018)), has created a look for the play that has the promise of a ‘balletic’ dance-movement (and, indeed, occasionally, the eight actors are deployed in movement and imagery to promote that kind of epic presentational style.) The theatrical hoisting/rising of a cloud/desert cloth that shifts and moves above the action of the play promotes, a subterranean sense of this epic scale of a brooding, ghostly world.

This domestic play, with dreams/nightmares of the past, has been transposed to an operatic/balletic scale – of an emblematic stature of meaningful symbol which, then, seems to encourage some of the actors (especially, Mr Blair) into an operatic gesture of voice and body, a mode of delivery that employs robust vocal orchestration. There is a live accompaniment by Composer and Musician, William Barton, ‘broadcast’ into the auditorium accompanied with choreographic non-naturalistic gestures from the actors. That all the actors are also wired for microphone, means there is offered a kind of scaled artificiality, a mechanised dependency of the human voice, that removes the characters from a flesh and blood presentation, that shifts the humanistic qualities of the writing into a grandeur of image and sound. These stylistic choices, seemed to me, to undermine a work that has a more human passionate and vulnerable tenderness of pain and loss that could talk of ‘real’ pain and pump ‘real’ blood expressed in ‘real’ gesture and true, plain voices – voices that are less ‘performative’.

This production, of Mr Armfield’s, seems to have hi-jacked the experience of the play, unnecessarily ‘heightened’ it, for I intuit that, perhaps, it is a simpler naturalism that will get to its purity, and give us the opportunity to endow the painful confronting issues with the demands of an excruciating  honesty. I am not saying that I did not have an experience of sensation with this production, but I wondered, while I sat there, whether a more stripped back, raw and vulnerable naturalistic style would have carried more theatrical wallop. (The Lighting Design, by Mark Howett covers the production both epically and naturalistically. The Costumes, by Jennifer Irwin, are the most useful element of the Design.)

Wayne Blair is majestic in the statuesque ‘Lear’-like ravings of his Jeremiah, that is contrasted with his touches of ‘silly’ comic relief, tended by the naturalistic burbling of the happy sister, Lizzie, given by an impressive Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Whilst, Justin Smith is his usual modest self in subordinating the actor to the empathies and function of Henry Giles to great effect – comically wry, sensitive and truly baffled by the ‘setting’ of his old friend, Jeremiah. Melissa Jaffer is utterly agile in her direct wonderment as the love centre of the play, the ghostly, 102 year-old Gladys Dawson. Shakira Clanton grows quietly more confident as the story moves on as Simone, the catalyst for the crisis of the story, subtly supported by an amusing cameo from Nicholas Brown, as the English/Hindu professor returning the remains of ‘King Tulla’, which are impersonated, as a spirit, by Ian Wilkes. The character of Young Jeremiah at my performance, by Wesley Patten, seemed to be superfluous to the action.

THE LONG FORGOTTEN DREAM is a well written naturalistic piece of writing that also moves into times past and into a spirit world with dramaturgical ease. It is confident and sometimes extremely passionately eloquent.

N.B. Ticket $99.00, plus $5.00 more for the pleasure of my arriving and paying for a ticket, in cash (not credit card!) – all MY effort – for the service that the Sydney Opera House offers: printing the ticket.
$12.00 for the program! – I could have bought a novel for that cost at a second hand store.
$13.50 for a sandwich and coffee, as dinner, prior to the 6.30pm showing.

The financial cost totally, not counting transport, a whopping $129.50.

Is it a wonder that one depends more and more on word of mouth (or real cultural curiosity) to endorse a work as a must see before forking out such a cost?
Who can afford subscription faith in the curating of the BIG companies anymore? Especially after the disaster of some of the artistic choices over the last decade or so. Both the STC and Belvoir!

$129.50 is a great deal of my so called disposable income to hand over, willy nilly, in good faith.
I also have Power Bills, to pay.