Nathan Maynard’s elegiac, slice-of-life love letter to his family shines a spotlight on an aboriginal community which for generations has eked out a living harvesting baby mutton birds during the annual mutton birding season on Tasmania’s remote Big Dog Island.
The journey to the mutton bird rookeries is a tradition Tasmanian aborigines have undertaken for hundreds of years. Maynard’s play focusses on the Duncan family, led by patriarch Ben (Maitland Schnaars) and his wife, Stella (Della Rae Morrison), who are hosting a reunion for the birding season.
Helping out are their cocky son Ritchie (Mathew Cooper), their daughter Lou (Nazaree Dickerson) and her teenage son, Clay (James Slee) who lives in Melbourne and is having his first experience harvesting mutton birds. Clay is keen to succeed at mutton birding but is distracted by the fact that his no-good white father has not turned up as promised.
Not a lot happens on Big Dog Island, and so the Duncans spend their time bickering over early morning breakfasts, and sharing secrets during late night parties on the beach or during sweaty days in the plucking sheds. There is little drama in their interaction, not the least because of the scatter-gun delivery of some of the cast, which made it difficult to catch many of the lines.
The funniest and most compelling moments are generated by the exuberant performances of Lisa Maza as Stella’s potty-mouthed sister Marlene, and Trevor Jamieson as her impish, randy no-hoper boyfriend, Neil, and the repercussions of Marlene’s decision, after some comical canoodling on the beach, to end her long-term affair with Neil, which leads to the revelation from Lou, that she’s lesbian.
Charismatic Jamieson also doubles as the ranger, but his magnificent white beard is so distinctive that it’s impossible to accept that the ranger is not Neil in his day job.
Apart from its depiction of family dynamics, the main interest is the play is enactment of the rituals associated with mutton birding. Much of the dialogue takes place as the young birds, represented by white rags, are dragged from their nests, their necks broken, and then strung on long sticks and carried off to the plucking sheds.
There are poetic moments in the references to the mutton birds which migrate thousands of kilometres each year, only to return to the same burrows to breed, and in the scene in which young Clay summons up the courage to plunge his arm into a mutton bird burrow, and then deciding to release the precious white mutton bird leader he discovers.
Richard Robert’s spare panoramic setting effectively conjures up the remoteness of the island beaches, and the plucking sheds, but it’s a pity that a better solution could not have been found for the all-important kitchen scenes, which are cramped to one side of the stage.
With The Season, Maynard has written a shrewd, charming play memorable for the uniqueness of its setting, its colourful characters who like the mutton birds return each year to their special island, and for the insights it offers into little-known activity of mutton-birding.
The Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Thursday 13 September 2018
Season: 13 – 15 September 2018 (closed)
The Season will be presented at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta: 20 – 22 September, and the Seymour Centre, Chippendale: 25 – 29 September 2018. For more information, visit: www.tasperforms.com for details.
Image: Trevor Jamieson and Lisa Maza star in The Season – photo by James Henry
Review: Bill Stephens OAM