1790: A tale Not Often Told – Robert Thomson reminds us that we are our history. (Theatre Review)

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1790:A Tale Not Often Told

Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre

13-15 November. You can grab tickets here.

I remember once hearing David Malouf speaking about the Australian’s resistance to assimilating American culture. We were gathered (virtually at his feet but not quite) at a bookshop in Sydney and he was talking about American’s that were on the first fleet and the distrust many of the first settlers felt for the American desire to ‘take over’ and make their mark on this part of the world via the new colony of Australia. In other words, Malouf suggested, it is intrinsically Australian to resist American culture – we’ve been doing right from the start, so when you hear a lament for the influx of ‘Americanisms’ around the BBQ, remember that it comes from a deep part of what makes us uniquely Australian. I didn’t realise this. I just assumed Australian’s resisted American culture because it was dominating and everywhere.

It turns out the desire to connect and establish an alliance with the first Australians isn’t a new thing either. Arthur Phillip was determined to create alliances with the naturally suspicious group of local indigenous people’s, revealing that a connection with the great Australian culture (the longest continuous culture in the world) has also become a natural part of our modern culture. It is ‘Australian’ to want an alliance with our indigenous neighbours, and against our culture to fight it. While Australian’s might have a vague understanding of the importance of Arthur Phillip in establishing the Australian cultural narrative, this importance is largely historic, so that we recognise it in legislation, government and our judicial system, but rarely to we understand how important he was to our identity as Australians. Just as the first settlers were determined to bring civility in the form of British society with them into Australia, like all immigrants they also left the homeland behind, and a brand new culture was formed as soon as those first feet connected with new dry soil. Like all visionaries, Phillip struggled to gain support for what he saw so clearly, and has been manifest so obviously from him, but also like all visionaries, he wasn’t daunted, and the importance of what he gave Australia has continued. One of the most important accomplishments of Arthur Phillip was his recognition of the local indigenous people and the essential fact of the formation of an alliance.

So in a time of famine, when the settlement was down to stringent rations and there was only enough food to last for another three months, Phillip knew so strongly that this alliance was necessary, that he played host to a hungry Bennelong, the local man with whom he had formed an alliance. It was Phillip who named the now famous piece of land after Bennelong and Phillip who worked tirelessly for an alliance when the very survival of everyone at the colony was in doubt. The details of this alliance, and the complexities surrounding its naturalisation are the subject of Robert Thomson’s play, 1790: A tale Not Often Told, now showing at the Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre. Thomson’s play is ripe with lush details about the time period, details taken from the very human experience of life back in those times. Theatre always give a visceral account of whatever it portrays, but when the story is this important, and the skeletal shape of it is well-known, the human element provides a colour and passion that have been lacking prior to this live experience. It becomes a thrilling participatory practise to sit in a theatre, right where the events took place, and immerse one self in the detail of our own cultural history,.

Pete Malicki takes full advantage of the theatre space, the nuanced and detailed script and the highly talented actors to create a multilayered, multi-textured performance. But for the desk of Arthur Phillip, which remains stoically in one corner for the duration of the play, a bit like the arrival of the white settlers themselves – an immovable solid object, the props come and go with the performers, different mini scenes working to overlap each other, interweaving and giving a perfect understanding of how events and vision collide to make something new. Phillip and Bennelong’s combined dream for each of their people to form a co-habiting relationship of mutual strength seems impossible among the material hunger and spiritual starvation of both the cultures struggling on a now shared piece of land. When the story of stolen bread is combined with sub plot of searching for more food for the insatiable Bennelong, we get a strong sense of our own contemporary struggles with the overwhelming real-ness of our perceptions, versus the vision of those who ask us to see past it. This decision to overlap the various plot points makes for an incredibly strong immersion in the play and deep audience engagement with the narratives as more than a snapshot of history. We see ourselves in this tale and the struggles we have with reconciliation as a fully formed narrative with its roots in a people we do not want to be.

Part of the success of the audience experience of 1790: A tale Not Often Told is its cast and the towering strength of its lead performers. Lasarus Ratuere and Andrew Steel are each mighty in their portrayal of Bennelong and Phillip respectively bringing dignity and integrity to their roles. They are supported with an all round great cast, particularly Thomas E.S. Kelly as Colby and Isabella Grace as Barangaroo who gives us intricate, detailed perspectives that cut against the grain of perception born of cardboard cut out historical figures. Under Pete Malicki’s direction and through the tireless work of Kelly McJannett who was determined to see this play realised, Sydney-siders are lucky enough to be able to catch this short season as it performs in darling Harbour; a performance that will change everything you know about our first contact with the original owner and give a new perspective on what it truly means to “be” Australian.