It turned out to be a case of strangers outstaying their welcome. The visitors weren’t going to be leaving any time soon and the hosts’ initial goodwill – judiciously assuaged after much debate – was hastily trampled on. Australia/Invasion/Survival Day eventuated as a fateful knock at the door of our culturally diverse Indigenous custodians.
Now imagine if Australia’s historical perspective was shifted from the colonisers to our First Nations people for just one day, 26 January 1788. That’s exactly the foundation on which Muruwari descendant Jane Harrison’s thought provoking play, The Visitors, takes flight and to which Victorian Opera (VO) has created an astounding, approachable and inviting adaptation that flavours the day unforgettably anew.
Since the play’s premiere in 2020 at the Sydney Festival, Harrison has adapted it into a novel as well as adding her expert signature to this operatic version with music by Dharug composer Christopher Sainsbury.
Few stories gather pace with such momentum but, then again, a more self-aware country demands and responds to a more holistic approach – unfortunately, last Saturday’s referendum proved that the path is still riddled with obstacles.
A sense of ominous change hangs over Harrison’s work. Extreme heat, a fallen parakeet and dry midday lightning mark the day seven senior Aboriginal men and women – six Elders and one initiate – gather on an escarpment after a call has gone out to the surrounding clans that 11 tall ships are sailing into Warrane (Sydney Cove).
With several members battle-ready, each must make a decision as to how to proceed. But, through necessity of achieving unanimity, a ‘parliament’ of discussions, debates, observations and stories ensues over the course of the day.
There’s Joycie (Jess Hitchcock), Winsome (Shauntai Sherree Abdul-Rahman), Lois (Lillian Fromyhr), Gordon (Zoy Frangos), Jacob,(Marcus Corowa), Gary (Elias Wilson) and Albert (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i) – foreign-named as if to signify the loss of identity to come. Each navigate a way to reach consensus.
Harrison imbues the day with insight and wit to accomplish a powerful and surprisingly suspenseful piece of theatre awash with humanity.
The poignancy of Lois’ mysterious illness since she encountered the “shiny pink skin” people three days earlier in their “silly coats” juxtaposed with the priceless humour in Joycie’s proposal to measure their skulls for scientific research but adamant that everyone must be given a chance are among many highlights.
Gordon’s reflection on the day he watched as his father was shot at 18 years earlier and the sighting of a hanging attest to the visitors’ barbarism. But protocols are to be observed. Besides, Winsome believes they’ll leave and, as Jacob so momentously outlines, the pull of one’s country is so strong that, naturally, the visitors won’t stay.
Sainsbury’s musical language, drawing upon an eclectic mix of predominantly modern concepts – including sounds from his ‘aural homelands’ surrounding Sydney – gently electrifies the text without ever overwhelming it. Neither tweely melodic nor frictionally dissonant, the overall effect appeals greatly for its smoothly and evocatively integrated ideas, rather in the vein of a piquant Stephen Sondheim musical.
In the hands of Noongar director Isaac Drandic, the manner in which the work simultaneously alludes to the past while very much feeling like the present is sensitively and effectively realised. In this regard, Drandic is marvellously supported by designer Richard Roberts’ floating-like platform featuring three spindly ghost gums and rudimentary chairs.
Individual characters are articulated by Western-influenced uniform-grey costumes and, as if measurements lend support to truth, Rachel Burke’s lighting brilliantly basks the stage as the pre-dawn temperature rises from 30°C to a 44°C late afternoon before decreasing by just 3°C in the evening.
Landing just on an hour in length, the work is dynamically and impressively sung by the well-rehearsed ensemble who meet the ears, eyes and emotions of their colleagues with conviction.
With an equitable sense of power prevailing, there is no starring role. Particularly meaty performances do, however, come from Frangos’ aggressive but subtly tempered Gordon, Hitchcock’s wise and compassionate Winsome, Abdul-Rahman’s candid Joycie and Corowa’s knockabout and vitality-rich Jacob.
Bringing superb fluidity and texture to the fore, conductor Phoebe Briggs presides over a faultless 12-musician VO Chamber Orchestra. Ken Murray’s mandolin time is especially pleasing as it accompanies Lois’ storytelling.
We never meet the visitors but their existence is always palpable. Chillingly, as the ensemble face the audience in their closing moment of unity to extend their welcome after a considered path to agreement, they appear like rabbits in the headlights – worse, a huddle before a firing squad.
Sadly, there is still so much to achieve in reconciliation but, in another small step for greater understanding, VO are to be highly commended for this extraordinary commission.
Playhouse – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 18 October 2023
Season continues to 21 October 2023
For more information, visit: www.victorianopera.com.au for details.
Image: Victorian Opera presents The Visitors – photo by Charlie Kinross
Review: Paul Selar