1790: A Tale Not Often Told – Theatre interview with director Pete Malicki.
1790: A Tale Not Often Told
13 – 15 November, Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre
The story of Arthur Phillip, first governor of NSW and founder of the settlement now known to us as Sydney, and Woollarawarre Bennelong of the Eora nation and their friendship, is a multilayered tale of two men who met as enemies. Yet they became friends, establishing a question of mutually appreciative cohabitation between them that has become a central component of the Australian psyche regardless of your length of time as one of its citizens. It seems colonists and indigenous people have been talking about how we can be mutually respectful friends for just as long as we have been divided cohabiters of the same piece of earth. For those of us to imagine “reconciliation” to be a fashionably new idea, driven by an irrationally compassionate political left, radically at odds with the “natural” order of “survival of the fittest”, the story of Bennelong and Phillip is yet another historical challenge to that idea, recognising instead the innate desire in human creatures to discover and connect with each other, all the more so when faced with mutual threat such as disease and starvation.
Australia has been struggling to forge connections between our different folk for far longer than we have been overemphasizing our differences and it is these sorts of cultural awarenesses that should give us cause to feel good about our mutual heritage, but often get lost in our refusal to engage deeply with our national history. If we despise our indigenous culture (you want to talk “survival of the fittest,” then take notes from the oldest uninterrupted culture in the history of the world) it is because we despise ourselves, and surely a deep engagement with the intricacies of our history is one of the most important ways we can understand ourselves better on behalf of the value being uniquely Australian can bring to the world.
1790: A Tale Not Often Told is one of these crucial stories. Penned by writer/historian Robert Thomson, it is the story of the extraordinary friendship between Bennelong and Phillip at the time in history when Sydney as we know it today was birthed. The production is directed by Pete Malicki and I was lucky enough to have a chance to chat with him on the phone earlier this week about 1790: A tale Not Often Told.
Lisa – Tell me a little about 1790: A tale Not Often Told.
Pete – The play is primarily about the relationship between Arthur Phillip and Woollarawarre Bennelong, two men who forged a friendship so strong Phillip called Bennelong his ‘son’ and Bennelong called Phillip his ‘father’. They forged this connection, despite both their cultures being so wary of each other, and despite their rocky beginning, when Governor Phillip actually kidnaps Bennelong and chains him up alongside another man named Colby. However, due to Bennelong’s remarkably resilient nature, his good humour and his ability to warm to his captors, he soon agrees to act as a sort of translator Ambassador between the two cultures. During this period, Bennelong stayed with the colonists for six months and the pair grew remarkably close.
Lisa – 1790: A Tale Not Often Told, is a special production that brings an important story to Australian audiences. It must be a challenge to make something like this. What made you decide to direct this production?
Pete – Personality has to gel. Kelly McJannett and I connected immediately over what she was trying to achieve in bringing Robert Thomson’s work to life. Kelly is a remarkable person who already, at age 28 has built her own non-profit organisation in Food Ladder. I have a pragmatic approach to theatre; I appreciate the challenge of setting objectives and meeting those objectives. Kelly is a well-organised engaging person who acts on what she wants to build. After meeting, it seemed natural to work with her on 1790: A Tale Not Often Told. My main objective was to make this important story as engaging and interesting as possible. In each scene, I’m always thinking, how can we make this better? Faster? Funnier? As long as the excitement doesn’t undermine the importance of the story’s message, I want to make an engaging night at the theatre that is also about an underrepresented, important part of our history.
Lisa – Kelly is producing a play for the first time, but it seems many of you are working together for the first time. Are there advantages to being newcomers to each other?
Pete – Kelly is a highly skilled, successful project manager, so turning those talents to theatre production was natural and in fact added some essential dexterity theatre production often lacks. But for the most part, we auditioned on merit and didn’t pay much attention to experience in choosing the cast. Andrew Steel who plays Governor Phillip, is a NIDA graduate and a remarkably strong actor, but his ability to assimilate direction quickly and grow the role is just as important. Lasarus Ratuere who plays Bennelong is a fantastic actor who has a talent for portraying emotional responses to complex situations. This comes to the fore in the play when he has to return to his people and they reject him because of the friendship he has made with Arthur Phillip. The entire cast has been carefully selected, each for the special and unique piece they bring to the character they portray.
Lisa – Why is theatre such a good way for us to discover our history?
Pete – Theatre is an underutilized medium in Sydney. Film, television and other art forms are very passive, but theatre encourages engagement. You are a person sitting in front of real people. Even if the night is transporting you through time, you can’t avoid the one on one of theatre. Because of this, theatre makes you think things and respond in ways that film and television can’t easily bring out. It’s the perfect medium for telling our underrepresented stories.
Lisa – How has working on a project like this changed your relationship to our national history?
Pete – As a person it has informed me about being an Australian. So much about this time, I didn’t know and I wasn’t aware of. I have not just discovered a great deal in Robert Thomson’s words, I’ve also learned a lot from working with the costume designers, researching with our indigenous consultant, and discovering small details, like what happened when a person was flogged – what that meant and what it looked like. There is a lot of history packed into a ninety minute show, and we have done our best to make it as authentic as we can, to the point only a historian will be able to see where we haven’t been able to source a piece of costume exactly right etc. It’s a play that suits all audiences.
This isn’t just an interesting piece of theatre. It’s a very important part of our history, the history of our reconciliation as well as that of our differences. It shows us as working together in progressively forging a positive relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. Here are two men, who knew right from the start of this nation as we know it today, that a strong working relationship was crucial to all Australians.