Thursday, 1 October 2020

2020: Mess - directed by Natsuko Yonezawa



Mess – A Belco Arts Production at Belconnen Arts Centre Theatre, Canberra, October 1-2, 2020.  

Next production: intimacy October 22-23, 2020.  
Tel: 02 6173 3300

Natsuko Yonezawa – Director/Performer;
Christopher Samuel Carroll – Performer/Collaborator;
Miriam Slater – Performer/Collaborator;
Marline Claudine Radice – Composer/Live Musician;
Chenoeh Miller – Producer/Assistant Director;
byrd – Set Designer;
Linda Buck – Lighting Designer (Belco Arts’ Technical Manager)
Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak – Stage Manager
Kyle Sheedy – Audio Operator
Shan Crosbie & Skye Rutherford – Marketing & Promotion

With carefully managed Covid-19 social distancing, the brand new Belconnen Arts Centre Theatre presented its second production to a limited audience of 58, spaced out in three rows along each side of a long quite narrow performing area, its floor polished to mirror reflection quality: a symbol in its own right, reflecting a quality production.

The shadowy dimly lit corridor waits empty of living beings except for, at one end with her back to us, we notice a woman in sinuous red is making slow small movements of her shoulders, arms and hands.  As she fades out of the acting space, small percussion sounds begin and she is replaced by the composer as something like an earth-mother figure, now producing disturbing keening woodwind whistles.

As she too fades back and a soundscape surrounds us surruptitiously, in a kind of musique concrète form, two figures – male and female – each in non-descript greyish loose clothing enter from opposite ends and action begins.  Like an extension and exaggeration of the movements of the original woman in red, these two do not speak or make any sounds throughout the whole performance.  They are clearly not in communication, perhaps not able to be in communication with each other when they enter.  We wait, watching the detail of their movements and the feelings they apparently express, and wonder – will this isolation reach some point of fruitful life?

Of course, it’s not my role here to be a spoiler.

For me personally, the concentrated detailed movement work of Miriam Slater and Christopher Samuel Carroll was fascinating and absorbing in a special way.  In my teaching days I was lucky indeed to have been taught by Anton Witsel, one time member of the Nederlands Ballet and student of French mime artists Jean-Louis Barrault and Jacques Lecoq.  I had also taught a Japanese exchange student at one time, stirring up my interest in Noh drama, Kabuki and Butoh dance; and I had separately found the teachings of Rudolph Laban especially effective in teaching movement as the basis of drama to my students.

So to see these performers demonstrating like a masterclass how to make elements of movement – never quite mime, not exactly dance – into what could look like powerfully creative improvisation, in concert with sound and light, rather than either being in merely response to the other, was a wonderful experience.  It is so good to see work of this depth in this new theatre.  I trust that Belco Arts will keep up the good work.

And, almost by the way, I think Natsuko Yonezawa has a positive view despite the ‘mess’ of lockdown.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 22 August 2020

A Room Made of Leaves - novel by Kate Grenville




 A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville.  Jacket image by Lisla/Shutterstock.  Text Publishing, Melbourne, July 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Each of the three novels, Hamnet, Truganini and A Room Made of Leaves, respectively by Maggie O'Farrell, Cassandra Pybus and Kate Grenville, focusses our attention on a woman – significant in history but unknown to us as a real person.

In each case her “disappearance” is because of a man in her life who shines in the limelight of history.  Agnes, or Anne, was the wife of William Shakespeare; Truganini was the guide assisting George Augustus Robinson; Elizabeth was the wife of John Macarthur.  We appreciate Shakespeare for his playwriting; Robinson for trying to save Tasmania’s original people, according to his own lights; and Macarthur for establishing Australia’s wool industry.

Each of the three women authors starts from the premise that these men lived in highly personal relationships with these women.  Without coming to know those lives as lived by the women, are we seeing only one side of the history we are taught and have come to accept as sufficient?  Might not the women’s stories, experienced by us imaginatively from within, reveal another view of history?

The answer by each author in her own way, is Yes – indeed!

Myths grow on men in history like lichen on ancient rocks; women of all ages have to live in a different moving reality.  These works are novels, drawing on the authors’ knowledge as women; and their historical research – though remarkably extensive in each case – has to be presented as if it is fiction, since their characters’ actual personal records have disappeared.

It is in the creation of the characters of Agnes, Truganini and Elizabeth that we come to understand them as people first.  Then, in their roles as wife or guide, we see through the men’s auras, scraping away the patina, to see a new kind of truth.

I reviewed Truganini first (8 May 2020), fascinated by this First Nations woman of such self-determination, strength of character and cross-cultural diplomatic sensibility.  I knew of Hamnet only as William Shakespeare’s son, who died aged 11.  I had no preconception of his mother who made her life her own, including in her mid-twenties marrying an 18-year-old Latin tutor.  Nor how she and her often away from home husband came to terms with Hamnet’s death. (Reviewed here 19 June 2020)

And now, just published in July,  as if by magic, I’m led to believe that Elizabeth née Veale had been born and brought up in Devonshire, not far from my own favourite haunts as a child, though pigs happened to be more in my purview than sheep.  And so I was under way, with a touch of Jane Austen, into the life of this young woman needing to marry into some kind of regular income.

And what a woman, who, with all her wits about her when she has reached about three score years and twenty, living in Australia, just like me now, writes up her life and leaves her story hidden in Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta.  I don’t have her wits, but I’m sure that Kate Grenville does.  The “transcriber and editor”, as Grenville describes herself, writes of Elizabeth Macarthur: “In these private papers, written near the end of her life, she steps out from behind the bland documents that were her public face.  They’re a series of hot outpourings, pellets of memory lit by passionate feeling.  With sometimes shocking frankness, they invite us to see right through into her heart.”

Some readers may find it hard to accept Grenville’s subterfuge.  But, in effect, this apparently advertorial “quote” lays out her intention in this novel.  I believe she achieves her aim most powerfully.  Not only do we experience what surely must have been the reality of Elizabeth Macarthur’s life from a child taught so much by her sheep-farming grandfather to a woman without whom the development of the Australian Merino wool industry would never have happened, but we come to understand, as her character grows, the awful contrast between the emotional ineptness of a man like John Macarthur and the emotional maturity and subtlety needed to be learnt by a woman in the position of such a man’s wife.

It is in this understanding that Grenville’s work matches the creation of the characters of Agnes by O’Farrell and of Truganini by Pybus.  William Shakespeare and George Augustus Robinson are quite different men from John Macarthur and each other, of course.  Each of the three authors cleverly reveal the nature of those particular men, through each woman’s eyes, but each of the women have the same basic issue to deal with.

As, surely, all women do.  Agnes, Truganini and Elizabeth are wonderful models of real people in history – women from whom men can learn, as I hope I have myself.  Each of them are different, too.  From Agnes I think of her originality of approach; from Truganini her vivacity in youth and dignity in old age; from Elizabeth her growing self-awareness.

From all three it is the importance of women’s self-determination that stands out.  Disappearing from history should be no woman’s fate.  

In this sense, all three books are political – A Room Made of Leaves perhaps more overtly, in Grenville’s characterisation of Elizabeth Macarthur who seems to have been so much more deliberately written out of the record, in favour of the scoundrel, John Macarthur.  Many surprises await you in this novel approach to what really happened in the penal colony, according to this "truly incredible and strangely little-known story: How Elizabeth Macarthur's long-lost secret memoirs were discovered."

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 19 June 2020

2020: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Truckle Bed and Crib
Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon
Photo: Meg McKone, May 2017

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.  Tinder Press, UK 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

In 1981 a small group of my students decided they would present a ‘poor theatre’ Hamlet in our Drama Studio.  For several weeks they read, absorbed and discussed Shakespeare’s four-hour long script.  “We are not interested in the Rotten State of Denmark,” they said.  “It’s a play about two families.  There’s Hamlet and his relationships with his mother, his father and his uncle.  Then there’s Ophelia and her relationships with her father and her brother – and with Hamlet.”  Then they instructed me to spend the upcoming two-week vacation cutting out the politics and other extraneous material to produce a focussed family drama under two hours long.

Reading O’Farrell’s Hamnet took me back to the intensity of that exercise – and opened up my thinking about Shakespeare’s work in a completely unexpected way.  I had often wondered about his family life somewhere in the background of his artistic development, from the early comedies through the histories to the symbolism of The Tempest

Hamlet always seemed an outlier: O’Farrell’s remarkable imagination tells us why, in her story of Hamnet and his relationship with his mother Agnes, his father William, his sisters, his uncles and aunts, and even his grandparents – of the families of Agnes of Hewlands Farm and William, son of Stratford town glovemaker John Shakespeare.  Her re-creation of their lives, of necessity fictional, is surely the most wonderful telling of truths by any modern author.

I would wish that this novel should not be seen as merely adding to the pile of publications about William Shakespeare. It stands in its own right as a novel, stimulated to be sure by the mysteries that surround the famous playwright.  But it is the story of a woman whose son dies unfathomably at the age of eleven; a woman of powerful emotions and understanding matching her husband – like her, he must also take his own direction.  Each must establish their own independent lives. 

Set as it is in the insecure world of the late 16th Century, even ironically still subject to the bubonic plague after 300 years, just as we suddenly face an unpredictable Covid-19,  reading what Agnes thinks, feels and does is absolutely as relevant in today’s world as in hers.  The strength of O’Farrell’s writing is in her ability to take us into the minds of her characters using a surprisingly simple technique.

When I read the first chapter I was taken aback, at first feeling I was made to stand back, and yet at a close-up distance, as if I were invading the space and perhaps the privacy of Hamnet: “Near the bottom [of a flight of stairs], he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come.  Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit.  He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor.”

But, before long, this objective descriptive writing, always in the present tense, revealed within it a gradual understanding on my part of this person’s understanding of himself.  He has come in, but no-one is home: “The boy opens his mouth.  He calls the names, one by one, of all the people who live here, in this house.  His grandmother.  The maid.  His uncles.  His aunt.  The apprentice.  His grandfather.  The boy tries them all, one after another.  For a moment, it crosses his mind to call his father’s name, to shout for him, but his father is miles and hours and days away, in London, where the boy has never been.”

And so we, reading, begin to see; to catch a passing feeling; start to think we know what is happening.  On Page 367, we realise, yes – now we know!

For a final bow to the author, her other technical device needs special praise.  I call it ‘back stitching time'.  Chapter 2 takes us back 15 years before Chapter 1; Chapter 3 begins where Chapter 1 had ended.  But this is hand sewing, not machine.  Over the sewing of the seam that is the whole story, the stitching goes backwards and forwards.  Sewing tips online tell me the back stitch ‘is one of the strongest and most durable stitches, making it very reliable’.

But creating a strong seam is not the whole story.  Earlier time chapters bit by bit catch up to the present until everything comes together at the end in a way that I can only describe as highly satisfying.  The effect, rather than mere strength in story-line, is as if a three-dimensional sculpture is built up until the shape is completed with the final words.  The work of art is finished.

Maggie O’Farrell deserves every accolade for creating fine art thoroughly in keeping with that of Hamnet’s father, and true to the memory of Hamnet’s mother.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 5 June 2020

2020: Theatre Network Australia - June 2020

Posted by Frank McKone
TNA E-News June 2020

We acknowledge that Australia and its performing arts industry have much to do and learn in committing to racial justice. We stand in solidarity with communities who are the survivors of racism, and more specifically First Nations people of this country.


We need your help today!
TNA and our colleagues believe that the federal government is working on final details of a support package for the arts this weekend. It will help if TNA subscribers ask your local MP (especially if they're from the Liberal or National parties) to support such a package. The arts is the second hardest hit industry. TNA has called for a $70m package for the Australia Council to support independents and non-profit companies. We also support LPA's $345m plan to restart and rebuild the live performance industry.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

2020: Ensemble Conversations

Ben Wood in his upcoming role as Kenny
Ensemble Theatre Conversations

Media Contact: Susanne Briggs 0412 268 320 or

Commentary by Frank McKone
May 28

Led by Ensemble Theatre’s Artistic Director Mark Kilmurry, each week people can tune in on Facebook for Ensemble Theatre’s latest news and a glimpse behind the scenes.

Ensemble Conversations features interviews with actors and creatives, exclusive scene reads, interactive Q&A sessions and more. Ensemble Ambassadors Georgie Parker, Todd McKenney, Kate Raison and Brian Meegan, writer Melanie Tait, director Priscilla Jackman and actor Ben Wood were the first to start the brand new series answering questions about the world of theatre and television
followed so far by actor Sharon Millerchip, writer Joanna Murray-Smith, director Kate Champion and this year’s Sydney Festival director, proud Noonuccal Nuugi man, Wesley Enoch.

Georgie Parker
Mark Kilmurry, Ben Smith
Melanie Tait, Priscilla Jackson

Kate Raison, Brian Meegan

Todd McKenney

Mark Kilmurry, Sharon Millerchip

Mark Kilmurry, Kate Champion
Joanna Murray-Smith appeared on a separate screen
While theatres are unable to stage shows for full-audience live performances, many like The Street, in Canberra, and Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir and others in Sydney, are presenting live-streaming events.  Ensemble’s Conversations are not performances, in the ordinary sense, so this is not a formal review, and I admit my bias here.

Ensemble Theatre, “Australia's longest continuously running professional theatre group, having given its first performance in Cammeray Children's Library on 11 May 1958. ... was founded by Hayes Gordon AO OBE along with the Ensemble Studios acting school, which introduced Stanislavsky-influenced method acting to Australia” has always been a place where I have felt personally connected – including having a nephew who trained there, a student who teched there in the 1980s, and one-time student, now actor/writer/director Steve Rodgers who performed in The Odd Couple at the Ensemble last November and is currently adapting for stage the Jacobson Brothers’ Kenny, in rehearsal now but delayed by coronavirus.

Though I was never directly involved in the company, in the late 1960s I took students to see Hayes Gordon directing in rehearsal, and sat on a NSW Department of Education panel chaired by Sandra Bates (to whom Hayes later passed on the role of artistic director) to design the state’s first high school drama teaching studios.  This experience helped inform my work in the 1970s setting up and teaching drama in Canberra; while more recently as a reviewer I have followed David Williamson’s productions at the Ensemble which has become his favoured small theatre especially since Sandra directed Face to Face in 2000.  (

So I am happy, and certainly not surprised, to watch the current artistic director, Mark Kilmurry, having such personal family-like conversations with actors, writers and directors.  The atmosphere of friendly cooperation among practical people putting on plays, without being pedantic or seeking fame, is my Ensemble – yet these conversations are anything but mere theatre gossip.

Mark is an interviewer to the extent that he has in mind a series of similar questions for each conversation, but because he has often acted with, directed or worked with each of his colleagues, the questions are put in the context of a particular production,  rehearsal or development process.

For viewers with little if any backstage experience, the conversations are thoroughly enjoyable while also providing a new insight into what writers, actors and directors of live stage works actually do to create quality theatre.

Especially important, I think, is to show how much brainwork is involved in playing roles, knowing the boundaries between role-playing and non-acting states, and in creatively playing with social cues expressed in words and movement.  Georgie Parker emphasises the process of researching a character, for instance, and also spoke about the differences between acting on camera for television or film compared with being on stage with an audience, and explained how she finds stage more satisfying.  Ben Wood talks of how good writers give the actor words with a rhythm and timing which create the moments when a feeling ‘lands’ and spreads throughout the audience, sometimes in laughter, sometimes in silence.  Either is as satisfying for the actor, whether it be written by Shakespeare, David Williamson or for his recent role as Henry VIII in The Last Wife by Kate Hennig (reviewed here September 2019).

Today, May 28, Wesley Enoch – in isolation during Reconciliation Week – says: “I miss being close to people, telling their stories.”  For this, he explains, we need live theatre rather than screens.

The series of Ensemble Conversations continues while Convid-19 rages.

Mark Kilmurry, Wesley Enoch

 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 8 May 2020

2020: Truganini by Cassandra Pybus

Truganini – Journey through the apocalypse by Cassandra Pybus.  Allen & Unwin, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Maps by Guy Holt
By permission of the publishers.

“Cassandra Pybus is an award-winning author and a distinguished historian.  She is the author of twelve books and has held research professorships at the University of Sydney, Georgetown University in Washington DC, the University of Texas and Kings College, London.  She is descended from the colonist who received the largest free land grant on Truganini’s traditional country of Bruny Island.”  (Title Page)
Tasmania: South-east Nation - Nuenonne Clan on Bruny Island
Map: Guy Holt

 “Staring out over the mudflats [from near Oyster Cove] to the D’Entrecasteaux Channel at what had once been my family’s land on North Bruny Island, my emotions were in havoc….  I opened the gate [of the faded turquoise cottage, where] my uncle Ken welcomed me as if I had never been away.  Over a cup of tea, he told me that the place was getting too much for him, so I arranged to buy it from him, then and there.

"For the past thirty-four years the place I call home has been that cottage on the old station road in the country of the Nuenonne."  Page 268.


Reading between the time in 1828 when Richard Pybus was settled on his 500 acres land grant, when Truganini was probably about 16, to the time she died on 4 May 1876, Cassandra Pybus’ story-telling gave me that feeling – as if I had never been away.  Knowing, too, that her research is absolutely meticulous left me also with my emotions ‘in havoc’ as she goes on to describe them – “nothing as intimate and corrosive as guilt, just a powerful sense of complicity in the dispossession, destruction and denial that this dismal place represented”.

Truganini – Journey through the apocalypse is essential reading for all Australians; indeed for all people the world over.  I should start with my own experience.

My English parents migrated to Australia in 1955, when I was 14.  My Geography text book had taught me, in one distant black and white photo, that Australian Aborigines lived in a desert and wore almost no clothes.  Big city newspapers I read at Australia House in London headlined murders seemingly every day.  Dangerous?  Well…my father had taught me how to avoid the Teddy Boys in London, population 10 million - equal to that of the whole of Australia at that time.

If Aboriginal people appeared, they were cartoon characters who apparently lived in deserts with few clothes on.  In other words my understanding on arrival was no different from that of James Cook on his third voyage, except that he actually met the people at Adventure Bay, on the seaward side of Bruny Island, 29 January 1777.  Truganini’s father, Manganerer, was there.

The Captain Cook Society website at 
records that John Henry Martin, seaman on the Discovery, described the natives. "They have few, or no wants, & seemed perfectly Happy, if one might judge from their behaviour, for they frequently wou'd burst out, into the most immoderate fits of Laughter & when one Laughed every one followed his example Emediately."

But, as Pybus explains, “Cook was unaware that these people believed they were meeting their own dead returning as pale shadows of their former selves.  Being treated as some kind of kin, rather than as trespassing aliens, Cook and his officers were not to witness the fierce territorial attachment of the Nuenonne to their country.”

Of course, I immediately thought of what happened in Hawaii only two years later, when Cook was killed on 14 February 1779.  I think the brief mention at   
by Irene Wanner of the book by Glyn Williams: “The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade” will lead you into that story of misunderstanding.

I began to realise that I was going to learn far more than I thought I knew already by reading on – about what happened to the daughter of the man with childhood memories of Captain Cook.  Usually, I write reviews of live theatre, where I am responding to immediate experience.  The Convid-19 virus has put paid – or rather, unpaid – to that.  Cassandra Pybus may be a distinguished historian, but she is also a powerful creative writer, adept at creating drama.

A paragraph chosen at random, 97 pages in:  Stopping to rest about a quarter of a mile inland from the mouth of the Boobyalla River, Truganini made an unsettling discovery.  While gathering swan’s eggs for Wooredy to eat, she became curious about a deep indentation in the ground, and after digging further into the hole she uncovered an old wooden chest that contained a jumble of human bones.  Days later, at the mouth of the Tomahawk River, she saw two bleached male skeletons lying a few hundred yards apart that no one had tried to hide.  Awful though it was, Truganini had seem similar sights before – the beaches and inlets of the north-east corner were repositories of many human bones, invariably male and often shattered by a musket ball.

This is not the stuff of romantic or ‘horror’ fiction.  This is true history.  The word that comes to mind for Pybus’ writing is honesty.

This quality is especially significant in her dealing with the extensive, thoroughly detailed diaries, or log books, kept by the man officially credited by the colonial government for the removal of the last Aboriginal people from Tasmania – George Augustus Robinson.  His first land grant was adjacent to the Pybus grant in Nuenonne country.

The timeline provided in the book after Truganini’s story has been told is an excellent reminder of important dates and episodes.  It begins in 1804 with the establishment of the penal settlement on the Derwent River, later named Hobart.  By the time of Truganini’s likely birth in 1812 “the Nuenonne clan was diminished and traumatised” and “no longer ‘without jealousy of strangers’; they no longer saw the ghost men as their kin.”

It is best, I found, to leave reading the timeline until after allowing the experience of becoming immersed in the story to seep through beyond your consciousness of historical detail to your emotional state in response.  This is why when reviewing a stage play, I prefer not to read the program or interview the director or cast beforehand.  It is the immediacy of my thoughts and feelings that I need to express.

George Augustus Robinson saw himself as a good man who wanted to save the original people at first from themselves and then from the inevitable ravages of the invading colonists.  To “lift them from their state of savage ignorance” required them to “put their trust in God, he told them, and, by extension, in him, George Augustus Robinson: the good father sent to save them from obliteration.”  As in a good play, it is not so much in the plot, but in the characters and their relationships that the drama unfolds of the decade-long story of how Truganini played her part from Robinson’s first noticing her in 1829, “impressed with this young woman’s obvious intelligence and grasp of English”, to the transporting of people from all the clans in Tasmania to Flinders Island by 1835, and how Robinson’s attempt to move them finally to the Australian mainland at Port Phillip (Melbourne) failed by 1841.

The final chapter is the denouement after that climactic point, simply titled The Way the World Ends, taking us through to the point where Truganini becomes famous as ‘the last Tasmanian Aboriginal’.  If you were taught, as I was, that this was true, you will think again, about the cast of all the people in Truganini’s life from her Nuenonne father Manganerer, of the South-east Nation, through to all those others from the many clans within the South-west, Oyster Bay, North Midland, North-east, Ben Lomond, North, North-west and Big River Nations.  Their individual biographies take up an extra 30 pages of absorbing reading.
Tasmania: Indigenous Nations' Boundaries
Map: Guy Holt
“Driven to distraction by rising hysteria” the farming ‘settlers’ attempted, finally with official support authorised by Governor George Arthur by proclaiming martial law in 1828 and the Black Line of 1830, to remove the original owners by out-and-out murder.  G A Robinson believed, with the help of the Nuenonne clan, he could walk all around and across Van Dieman’s Land and persuade personally everyone still living on country to accept him as their saviour, accept his command, and go with him to places of safety – which in the end would mean on an island off-shore away from the temptation to return.
See The Black Line in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), 1830 by Lyndall Ryan to whom Cassandra Pybus has dedicated this book.
Tasmania: Van Diemen's Land Locations
February - October 1830 
Truganini and Dray led G A Robinson walking from Recherche Bay
to Port Davey, Bathurst Harbour, past Macquarie Harbour,
across the Pieman River and Arthur River
to Cape Grimm, then east to Launceston
600 miles

Map: Guy Holt

My migrating to Australia (Sydney and the Blue Mountains) introduced me to bushwalking.  This is very different from ‘rambling’ in England, ‘hiking’ in America or ‘tramping’ in New Zealand.  It meant navigating through ‘scrub’ often with no tracks (and certainly no National Park signposts until quite recent times).  My wife and I know what it means to face the special features of Tasmanian bush: ‘horizontal scrub’, seemingly impenetrable tangled vegetation, and mud so deep, thick and clinging, just as Robinson describes, that I had great difficulty on one occasion extracting my right shoe after extracting myself from such a mudhole on the Overland Track. 

Escaping convicts died from starvation and exposure trying to cross Van Dieman’s Land from the Sarah Island prison in Macquarie Harbour in the hopes of reaching Hobart – except for Alexander Pearce: Alexander Pearce (1790 – 19 July 1824) was an Irish convict who was transported to the penal colony in Van Diemen's Land (the modern day state of Tasmania), Australia for seven years for theft. He escaped from prison several times. During one of these escapes he allegedly became a cannibal, murdering his companions one by one. In another escape, with one companion, he allegedly killed him and ate him in pieces. He was eventually captured and was hanged and dissected in Hobart for murder.

This episode not only shows how degenerated was the white society of Van Diemen’s Land, but makes even more amazing the physique and cultural adaptation of Truganini’s people who lived so successfully in this seriously rugged landscape in such a climate 40+ degrees latitude south.  Truganini, a diver for abalone and shellfish of all kinds, and swimmer of great strength, endurance and skill, saved Robinson twice from certain drowning in the flooded Arthur River on the infamous West Coast where the Roaring Forties hold sway all year round; while her husband Wooredy could maintain their meat supply hunting kangaroos and wallabies in areas which had been carefully managed by fire farming, as Robinson noted – for thousands of years more than he could have imagined.

The following photos show the nature of the country Truganini and her friend Dray, a young woman from the Lowreenne clan of the South-west Nation, led Robinson through to find people, such as the Tarkiner clan of the North-west Nation.  They met up on the banks of the Arthur River.  “The dominant man in the group was a very tall Tarkiner warrior in his forties named Wyne….As evening fell, the whole group walked back to a camp in the forest, with Robinson carrying Wyne’s youngest daughter on his shoulders….A secret warning was conveyed to Peevay [of Robinson’s group] that he should keep watch that night because the Tarkiner intended to kill Robinson and any of his guides who were not their kin, with the exception of Truganini, whom they wanted to keep for themselves….”

This was one occasion when Truganini saved the desperate George Augustus Robinson’s life.

Photos: Meg McKone Feb (summer) 2019

Roaring Forties weather coming in, near Arthur River.

                                             West Coast Hut Depression near Arthur River
Aboriginal huts - large beehive shaped structures composed of wood and bark that could accommodate between 6 -14 people.

The unique beehive shape was specifically designed to withstand the harsh weather conditions of Tasmania’s coastal environments, particularly along the west coast where they are more commonly found.

Midden including abalone shells, behind Four Mile Beach south of Pieman River.

Dense rainforest inland near Montezuma Falls between Macquarie Harbour and Pieman River.

From Friendly Mission 1829-1831, the story takes us on through Extirpation and Exile 1831-1838, when everyone was believed to have been found and moved to Flinders Island in Bass Strait.

Map: Guy Holt
The situation at Wybalenna was simply dreadful, and so Robinson – in competition with the infamous John Batman, who made entirely spurious agreements with the Kulin people on the mainland to establish what became Melbourne – won the day, and became Chief Protector of Aborigines there with the intention of taking all the Van Dieman’s Land people across Bass Strait.  That story In Kulin Country 1839-1841 reveals a new level of misunderstanding. 

The mainland was administered from Sydney, so bringing Van Diemen’s Land people to Port Phillip was never going to be acceptable to the official superintendent, Charles La Trobe.  And, of course completely outside Robinson’s understanding, the Tasmanian nations had had no connection with the Australian mainland for some 10,000 years, since Bass Strait was flooded after the last Ice Age ended.  The idea that these people would naturally get on with any Aboriginal people whose country they were put into, just because they were all Aboriginals, was completely out of touch.  But Truganini with her diplomatic and language skills did her best. 

In Chapter 8, by 1839, “Confronted with the magnitude of the suffering in Port Phillip, the chief protector had no idea what he was supposed to do for so many afflicted and desperate people” – the Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung, Wadawurrung, Djadjawurrung and Taungurong clans of the Kulin Nation.  When Robinson organised a feast for more than five hundred, in the hopes of building trust as he could personally distribute food, “It fell to Truganini, Wooredy and Peevay to dispel suspicions that the feast was a trap to get the clans corralled together in one place where they could be shot.  Eventually, the offer of fresh meat was too enticing for the Kulin to stay away and the feast went off without incident….

But the tragic end of Chapter 9 is just too awful to contemplate.

When considering the idea that Truganini was the last Tasmanian, though, the story of one figure, Lacklay from the Punnilerpanner clan of the North Nation, who spoke the same language as Peevay, may be of interest.  He apparently disappeared from Port Phillip, presumably drowned in a boat that was wrecked – except that it did not capsize in Westernport Bay as people then believed.

He possibly worked in the whaling industry based in New Zealand, with an Oyster Bay Nation man known as Ned Tomlins, who married a Maori woman (Hipora) and had a son (Edward).  Perhaps Lacklay’s story turned out like Ned’s: he was young and could well have had a family of his own.  And there are surely many others: Wikipedia quotes “Contemporary figures (2016) for the number of people of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent vary according to the criteria used to determine this identity, ranging from 6,000 to over 23,000.”

Including lawyer, activist  and currently chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, Michael Mansell.

The final scene in Truganini’s life, at the end of Chapter 10, is told with simple dignity and respect for this remarkable woman.  Though we cannot undo the past, surely we can improve the future.  Truganini – Journey through the apocalypse is not a book to make immigrants like me feel guilty for the dreadful treatment of our Aboriginal peoples that the colonisation of Australia has caused.

I am angry, though, when, as Cassandra Pybus puts it in her Afterword, “From all points in the southern sky, leaders of the First Nations of Australia came together in 2017 to produce the Uluru Statement from the Heart [and] they proposed a Makarrata, which is a word [from the far northern Kakadu region – so distant from Truganini’s Nuenonne country on Bruny Island in the far south] in the Yolgnu language meaning a coming together after a struggle, facing the facts of wrongs done, and living again in peace”; angry because the Australian Prime Minister of the day dismissed out of hand enshrining these people and Makarrata in our country’s Constitution – a law, by the way, passed on 5 July 1900 by the British Parliament, given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria on 9 July and proclaimed on 1 January 1901, which effectively ignored the presence of the original owners of the land!

On our behalf, Cassandra Pybus has faced the facts and the wrongs done, even alongside her own family’s history since 1828.  Surely now it is well past the time, as the Uluru Statement asks, for ‘a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 3 May 2020

2020: Theatre Network Australia - April Bulletin

Posted by Frank McKone

*The acronym ASSITEJ comes from the original French:
Association Internationale de Theatre pour les Enfants et le Jeunesse
[TNA is the Australian National Centre for ASSITEJ. We support Sue Giles in her role as Australian Representative and Vice President of ASSITEJ global, and work in collaboration with Sue and the wider sector on key advocacy priorities and activities.]

Dear ASSITEJ Network Colleagues,
I hope that this bulletin finds you healthy, safe and at home.
We find ourselves in such a different landscape right now. Working from home, access to free childcare and mass home schooling in 2020 all have a huge impact on the lives of children, young people and families across Australia.
I hope that among the difficulties, this could also be a time to envisage a new kind of future with the young people of Australia who are dreaming from their bedrooms, lounge rooms and backyards. A kind of imagination that can see past this into a new future.
Please read on for updates on from ASSITEJ around the world, news of solidarity across the Theatre for Young Audiences and Youth Arts sector and some inspiration from kids around the globe.
Tessa Leong (with Nicole, Simone, Rani, Yuhui and Jamie)
Theatre Network Australia

A consortium of companies in the performing arts sector, led by Theatre Network Australia in partnership with Creative Partnerships Australia, are currently working on a fundraising campaign to provide equity bursaries to independent artists who have been adversely affected by COVID-19 and who do not have a financial safety net.TNA are actively seeking companies who will endorse the campaign and get the word out to potential donors as well as struggling artists. Get in touch if you'd like to join the list of fabulous companies getting behind it here
The other essential part of this campaign is to get some generous donors in touch with independent artists. If you have a stable job and love the arts you can DONATE HERE.

Media Contact for the complete Bulletin:  
"Tessa Leong"

© Frank McKone, Canberra and Theatre Network Australia

Saturday, 18 April 2020

2020: Songs Unsung by Daniel Assetta

Songs Unsung.  Performed by Daniel Assetta, with Nick Griffin on piano.  Lighting designed by Peter Rubie.

Sole Sessions on Youtube, 18 April 2020, 7 pm Australian Eastern Time.

Report by Frank McKone

What a difference a virus makes!  It’s frustrating for me to watch Daniel Assetta more or less glued to a fixed mic, with only an occasional few words with his pianist – 2 metres away, of course – after having reviewed Siblingship last October at The Q, in Queanbeyan, where he and his sister Chiara flung themselves wildly all over the stage.

But the purpose of presenting his Songs Unsung is much more about letting us into how Daniel feels about his life, so enthusiastic about performing in musicals like Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Cats and West Side Story.  He didn’t mention it, but his frustration must be so disappointing, as he was about to perform in A Chorus Line for the Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre in Sydney – now of course on hold for the foreseeable future.

He chose, of course, songs he hasn’t sung on stage, but would have liked to.  His short presentation over half an hour, with talk in between about his career, ended with “The Wizard and I” sung by Elphaba in Wicked, which was his first professional gig.  Gender issues mean he would not normally expect to sing her song publicly, but I felt the words – just of the first stanza – are symbolic of his experiences as he makes his way into what I’m sure will be a long and substantial musical performance career.

When he received the Rob Guest Endowment Award back in 2015, he might well have sung as Elphaba does

Did that really just happen?
Have I actually understood?
This weird quirk I've tried
To suppress or hide
Is a talent that could
Help me meet the Wizard
If I make good
So I'll make good:

And he may still be hoping that

Once I'm with the Wizard
My whole life will change
'Cuz once you're with the Wizard
No one thinks you're strange!

In fact, Daniel Assetta is well on the way to meeting up with his perfect Wizard.  It’s good to know, in these seriously uncertain times, that the arts will survive because of the passion and commitment to keep working.

Sole Sessions is presented by a collective of producers and supported by The Hallway, an independent advertising agency – Creative Director: Jeremy Willmott, who specialises in digital creative ideas.

Media Contacts at Darlinghurst Theatre Company are Amylia Harris, Co-Artistic Director specialising in artist relations, and publicist.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 16 March 2020

2020 Theatre Network Australia Covid-19 Response


Email from Nicole Beyer
Theatre Network Australia

 Posted by Frank McKone


Dear colleagues,
As you will be aware, the government has now banned events of more than 500 attendees and has made a firm call for social distancing and self-isolation, in order to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 virus. 
TNA is aware of the impact this has on our sector and we are hearing about the anxiety this is causing, especially to independents who work project to project. The cancellation of events and shows across the performing arts is a significant loss of work and income to an already financially precarious sector. 
In the TNA 2018 Independent Survey Report – THIS IS HOW WE DO IT: Working Trends of Independent Artists, Creatives, and Arts Workers in Australia – it was shown that respondents worked an average of 8 projects across a year, half of which were paid below industry rates. So right now, we are especially thinking of the independent artists, producers and presenters who juggle multiple jobs and roles to make a living, and we are concerned about those who are already marginalised and more vulnerable to the impacts of the virus, such as Disabled and Deaf artists.
What TNA is doing:
1.     TNA, together with our national colleagues are heading into a national industry roundtable with Paul Fletcher, the Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts advocating for an immediate and targeted assistance package for Australia’s performing arts industry.
2.    We are promoting the value of the small to medium and independent sectors to the media, and urging stimulus in multiple areas, including financial assistance for the sector's casual workers, and an injection of funds to ensure that all 162 short-listed organisations in the Australia Council's Four Year Funding round can be supported in the next cycle, providing vital infrastructure to our sector as it rebuilds over the medium term.  
3.     TNA has been speaking to advisors of both major parties and the Greens to seek their support for an assistance package.
4.     Updating the TNA Resources Page with relevant resources, links, and plans from national and international colleagues. 
What you can do:
1.     Log your loss of income with I Lost My Gig Australia. This will support the combined efforts of our national colleagues in advocating for an assistance package.
2.     Join in Live Performance Australia’s campaign #livesupport All industry workers are urged to record a short message and let the government know about the impact of the shutdown on our industry.
3.     Take the health and safety of our community seriously, and practise social distancing, and self-isolation if you are unwell to slow the spread COVID-19.
It is an incredibly stressful time with the loss of work and income, and we also acknowledge how heart breaking it is to have to cancel shows you’ve worked very hard to bring to life. But we cannot emphasise how much more urgently we need to show care towards ourselves and to each other.
Please feel free to contact us if you need any further advice or information.
Nicole, Simone, Jamie, Rani and Yuhui
Support Act Wellbeing Helpline 1800 959 500 – a free, confidential service, available 24/7 to anyone who works in the performing arts. We are doing our very best to keep up with the additional demand, but there may be a slight delay. If you or someone you know is at immediate risk, please contact the Emergency Services on 000.
Phone Lifeline 13 11 14Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or click here for additional services.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

2020: Family Values by David Williamson

 Family Values by David Williamson.  Griffin Theatre Company (Sydney) at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, March 11-14, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 11

Director – Lee Lewis; Dramaturg – Van Badham; Designer – Sophie Fletcher; Lighting Designer – Benjamin Brockman; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Francis

Belinda GiblinSue (Mrs Collins); Andrew McFarlaneRoger (Justice Collins ret.)
Danielle KingLisa (elder sister); Jamie OxenbouldMichael (middle brother); Ella Prince - Emily (younger sister)
Bishanyia VincentNoeline (Border Force naval commander; Emily’s partner); Sabryna WaltersSaba (Iranian refugee, in Australia for medical treatment; about to be sent back to Nauru)

Photos: Brett Boardman

In Family Values, David Williamson has written a masterwork. 

The Griffin Theatre production, in design and quality acting, picks up and runs with every opportunity the script provides.  It’s the Australian political satire I have been waiting for.

Going beyond satirical comedy, the Collins family “celebrating” Roger’s 70th birthday becomes a metaphor representing Australia, asking each of us what has happened to our humanitarian ideals.  Have we let the Fair Go go?  Can we bring it back … now … please!

Let me make it plain that my judgement on the quality of the play is not because I agree with Williamson’s stance on the issues.  It is because the work shows such expert control of all the elements of great drama.  This places David Williamson in the league alongside Shakespeare in his comedies like Much Ado About Nothing, George Bernard Shaw in his Major Barbara, and the serious drama of Henrik Ibsen in his An Enemy of the People.  The other modern Australian playwright also of special note is Nakkiah Lui in her Black is the New White (reviewed here March 2018).

The essence of achieving maximum effect is economy and structural complexity made to seem simple.  Though this may sound like the worst kind of public service doctrine, this is how it works:

Instead of his standard two-act play with interval (that is exposition followed by climax and denouement in the second half), Williamson has “gone modern” with a 90-minute tightly structured beginning-to-end story;

The story is apparently simple – Roger and Sue are waiting, bickering, for their children to arrive; Lisa explodes onto the scene with Saba, who uses an Anglo name as a cover; Michael belligerently arrives, and expounds on his religious conversion; Emily arrives hesitantly with her over-the-top partner Noeline; Saba’s illegal status is revealed; Sue concocts a solution to save Saba from being returned to Nauru.

The structure is spiral, reminding me of the image of a species’ genome, with its four letters of code interacting in unexpected and seemingly unpredictable ways, yet creating a complete life-form.

But in this species, which I could call Australianus politicus, there are seven code letters, each switching different sets of genes on or off.  But genetic diversification is how the system learns and changes.

Andrew McFarlane as Roger

Justice Collins begins with black-letter-law turned on.  At the end he turns it off.

Danielle King as Lisa

Lisa begins with risk-taking radical political activism, but finally accepts that there may be more subtle and softer ways of relating, even to authoritarian governments –  and her brother and sister.  Absolutist moral positions may be self-defeating.

Jamie Oxenbould as Michael

Michael, too, discovers that though his obsessive behaviour may have given him purpose as a child, in adult life his new-found obsession with Pentacostal Christianity needs to be thought through carefully.  Like his sister Lisa, he finds taking conventional absolutist positions fail when he has to test them in the face of the reality of Saba’s fate.  Christian love is about compassion, never obsession.

Bishanyia Vincent and Ella Prince
as Noeline and Emily

Emily says “Never be the third child”, meaning that she began believing it was natural that she always would be dominated, not only by Lisa, Michael and her ex-husband, but now by Noeline in a gay relationship.  By the end she has learned to stand up for herself, against Noeline’s black-letter-law view of their work for Border Force, and probably against their proposed marriage.  Self-realisation is the gene she turns on.

Noeline’s “Commanding Officer” gene is highly active until her environment changes irrevocably.  I’m not entirely sure at the end of the play whether her acceptance of the inevitable failure of the Border Force rules is a permanent switching off of that gene (when her Minister Mr Duck-it announces on Radio National that an un-named officer made a mistake, so he will treat Saba’s case as one-off, and allow her to stay).  I guess Emily will have to make that judgement “going forward”.

Belinda Giblin as Sue

It is Sue, who begins as mother-at-home to Roger’s man-always-at-work (until he retired and starts to get under her feet) whose practical management gene never changes.  She has always had to understand how to keep everything working in the family.  Saba is now in the family, and she works out what Justice Collins, ret. must say on national television about Saba’s case.  She hates the phrase “going forward”, so tells him that “in the future” their marriage is over unless he does the morally right thing. 

Sabryna Walters as Saba

Saba’s switched-on gene is truth – the proper understanding of the core elements of Islam, the denying of women’s rights by the mullahs when they arrested her for protesting because they made it law that women could not practise medicine, after she already had top results in her first two years’ medical training.  In her life-threatening escape, and despite her treatment by Australia, as morally evil as her treatment by Iran, her dream of life as a mother and a doctor – of compassion and science – remains undeterred.

Sabryna Walters’ performance of Saba’s major speech is quite extraordinary.

You may think from my description that this could not be a comedy.  But that is where David Williamson’s imagination shines.  He has written in a Playright’s Note:

From my earliest days as a playwright, as in Don’s Party and The Club, I’ve loved
to put people in the same room who are obliged to be together, but shouldn’t be
together, and don’t want to be together.  Humans being humans, this inevitably
results in drama and comedy.

It was Don’s Party and The Club, both famous for their satire of politics in their own ways, that I first thought of, before reading this Note. 

I think Family Values is more powerful and more comprehensive, and the comedy more telling.  I am just a year older than David Williamson.  I have been waiting for this play since The Coming of Stork in 1970.  I have reviewed 12 of his plays in the past 24 years, including Don’s Party and Heretic in 1996, Face To Face in 2000, and what he claims will be his very last play, Crunch Time, in February 2020.

I find it hard to imagine Playwright David Williamson, retired. 

© Frank McKone, Canberra