Photographer Ricky Maynard captures the essence of Birding on the Bass Strait islands in his series, 'Portrait of a Distant Land'
Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 13.01.17
Location: Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre
Readers of AAD should be familiar with the evocative photos of Ricky Maynard, the Tasmanian Aboriginal who introduced us to the world of Birding – the annual tradition of heading for the Bass Strait islands (where many Tassie Aboriginal people were forced to live after the Black Wars drove them from mainland Tasmania), gathering in family groups and heading out to capture and process up to 15,000 Mutton Birds in a season, food for the forthcoming year.
Now, another Maynard – young playwright Nathan – is bringing us almost close enough to smell these fairly pongy birds in a glorious drama that plays the Sydney Festival and then moves on to Tasmania's own 10 Days on the Island festival in March. You can also smell his family too – Mum and Dad, maintaining the traditions; son (poised to inherit responsibility) and daughter (troubled); aunt (there for the sex!); grandson (about to be initiated); and that inimitable actor Trevor Jamieson as a couple of risible authority figures.
In fact, there's a ton of experience in the cast – Kelton Pell (now in the 'Red Dog' film sequel) as Dad, Tammy Anderson (actually a Pakana/Moonbird woman from Tassie) as Mum; Luke Carroll (currently part of the notorious Meat & Livestock TV ad, 'You Never Lamb Alone') as son Ritchie; Lisa Maza (daughter of the immortal Bob) as Auntie Marlene; as well as Jamieson, who, reportedly chose this tour over repeating his role in 'The Secret River' going to the Adelaide Festival because 'The Season' has an Indigenous author.
(See Sydney Festival director, Wesley Enoch's statement, “Other people can't define who we are” re Aboriginal control of their own story-telling; also my thoughts on Norman Tindale's role in establishing the survival of Tasmanian Aboriginal people in Art & Politics.)
Playwright Nathan Maynard is less experienced – which shows in his bursting enthusiasm to tell all the stories he can in one tumultuous go. I suspect there are at least six plays here! Which means that key cultural issues got a bit lost, particularly the mythic role of the white pilot bird in leading Tassie's First People from the moon to earth, and his metaphorical role in leading the birds today from Tasmania 30,000 kms to Alaska and back each year. The women's sideline in collecting and threading mariner shells into traditional necklaces was also underplayed – so that the important handover of their Mum's necklace from Tammy Anderson to sister Lisa Maza had diminished impact.
But I'm carping – and lay part of the blame on Richard Roberts's stage design which left a mighty hole at the back of the stage through which some audibility escaped. A tiny amount of caring for these very real people slipped away too when I missed some of the best jokes! For the Duncan family are there for fun as well as the ritual and bonding aspects of Birding. The women get all the best (and frankest) sexual references and the men drink tea while mocking the tendency of white men to get drunk and start fights in pubs. They all recall the 'Old Guys' of previous generations with legendary Birding skills. And they never hit us over the head with anti-colonial rhetoric – the positivity of their lives says it all; though some in Sydney may miss the depth of feeling in Tasmania over the very live issue of having to prove their 'Aboriginality' – especially as the Duncans are immediate' afterwards threatened by a bushfire! But we all feel good for young Clay when he finally catches his first Mutton Bird, his arm full-stretch down a hole in the stage which may contain a snake or a spider as well as a bird.
And there's music from the Brown Boys – Cape Barren Country & Western, of course.
Look out for 'The Season' in Hobart and the Melbourne Festival later this year. A little dramaturgy should turn this exciting writing debut into a whole-hearted night in the theatre.
Veteran actor Kelton Pell with 'The Season's company arrayed behind him on Richard Roberts's stage
Fun round the kitchen table (l to r) : Tammy Anderson, Kelton Pell, Luke Carroll, Lisa Maza, James Slee, Nazaree Dickerson