Whitefella Yella Tree

Guy-Simon-and-Callan-Purcell-in-Whitefella-Yella-Tree-photo-by-Brett-BoardmanCanberra has been enjoying something of a festival of Dylan Van Den Berg plays commencing with The Street Theatre’s production of Milk in 2021, Belco Arts production of Ngadjung earlier this year, and now Griffin Theatre’s superb production of Whitefella Yella Tree – which enjoyed a short season in the Canberra Theatre Centre Courtyard Studio recently.

Van Den Berg is emerging as a fresh new indigenous voice with a gift for writing captivating dialogue that is poetic as well as questioning as he explores aspects of his culture and identity.

With Whitefella Yella Tree he tells a story set in the time of first contact of two 16-year-old indigenous boys, Neddy and Ty, who come across each other under a mysterious Yella tree. One is from a mountain mob and the other from a river mob.

At first suspicious of each other, they banter and flirt, and exchange information about the whitefellas, who have been turning up and causing some disruption. During the course of their conversations, they fall in love and rejoice in their situation.

However, Neddy is curious about the white settlers and decides to visit them. Ty agrees to wait under the yella tree for Neddy to return. When Neddy eventually returns, he is wearing a cast-off colonial army tunic, and in response to Ty’s questioning, reveals that through his association with the whitefellas, he has learned to be ashamed of his relationship with Ty.

Performed on a tri-angular plywood setting by Mason Browne, sensitively lit by Kelsey Lee, and enhanced with an atmospheric soundscape to evoke an other-worldly atmosphere, in which Van Den Berg’s language resonates as poetic, endearing, often laugh-out-loud funny, but never fey, while his characters wrestle with the social and political questions surrounding colonisation.

As the boys, Neddy and Ty, Callan Purcell and Guy Simon offer committed, unselfconscious performances in response to the sensitive and tactful direction of Declan Greene and Amy Sole which allows space for Van Den Berg’s words to breathe.

The result is a mesmerising, thoughtful and memorable production in which the only distraction was the decision to costume the two boys in modern koori dress thereby confusing the premise of the playing being set in the time of first contact.

Whitefella Yella Tree
Courtyard Studio – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Saturday 1 October 2022
Season: 28 September – 1 October 2022 (ended)
Information: www.griffintheatre.com.au

Image: Guy Simon and Callan Purcell in Whitefella Yella Tree – photo by Brett Boardman

Review: Bill Stephens OAM