|Charcoal Creek | Merrigong Theatre Company|
|Written by Jodi McAlister|
|Friday, 08 June 2012 09:15|
Left – Catherine Moore. Cover – Olivia Beardsley & Ed Wightman. Photos – Heidrun Lohr
Charcoal Creek has everything going for it. It has a fantastic cast, is well directed, beautifully designed, and has all the resources of Merrigong's excellent development program behind it. Unfortunately, it is let down by the writing, and what lies beneath that writing. The problems with Charcoal Creek are structural. This is true in two ways. The diegetic mode of storytelling, which can work wonderfully in some productions, hindered rather than helped the progress of the narrative here. But the real problem lay at the foundation of the play: it was, fundamentally, telling only half the story.
This is a big claim to make, especially considering that this show was a special commission for Merrigong, who are (quite rightly) particularly interested in stories about the Illawarra region. It is based on a historical footnote about a community in the late 19th century in what is now Unanderra. As it says in the show's blurb, this community was the site of "one of the first incidents of violent resistance by white Australians to new arrivals". Playwright Marcel Dorney has taken this story and from it, created four characters (two locals and two newly arrived English settlers) and a vaguely melodramatic story involving paternity fraud and a lynch mob. This story is one worth telling, and that is not the problem. What is problematic is the story untold, the one merely hinted at it. It is impossible – and, indeed, should be impossible – to tell a story about the fear of being displaced from one's land in colonial Australia without discussing the way white settlers displaced Indigenous people from their land.
Indigenous history is not entirely absent from the play. One character, Tom the local farmer (Johnny Carr), has an Indigenous ancestor, and it is mentioned several times that his father claimed the land he now owns by killing several Indigenous people. This story, however, is background. It serves to give the audience a moment of pause when Tom's wife Bridget (Catherine Moore) claims that the land they own is their son's birthright, but it has little more effect. I really think that Marcel Dorney has missed an opportunity to tell these stories in parallel here. Not only would it strengthen the themes within the piece of displacement, fear, and ignorance, it would add a significant amount of complexity and historical nuance to the story of the riots in Charcoal Creek being told. The Indigenous narrative is one that is often made subaltern. Australian history – particularly where the story being told is one about land and displacement – should not be whitewashed.
As I mentioned above, I felt that the structure of the play was not to its best advantage: the heavy emphasis on monologue served to slow down, rather than enhance and enrich, the story. I would like to note, however, that putting the issues I had with the writing aside, Charcoal Creek was excellent. I cannot fault the creative team. The set, with its long, lean gum trees, was hauntingly stark. Anne-Louise Rentell's direction was crisp and precise. All four actors were impressive, although Johnny Carr and Catherine Moore deserve special mention. Carr's characterisation was excellent and the way Moore dealt with the long, often oppressively wordy monologues she was given was wonderful. In this sense, there really was a lot to like about Charcoal Creek.
Someone once explained the theatrical process to me as like building a house. In Charcoal Creek, the house itself was beautiful. The acting, direction, design – all were fantastic. Unfortunately, the foundation on which it was built – the writing – was not sound. I applaud the creative team, and Merrigong's development program. Charcoal Creek is certainly a watchable and interesting piece of theatre. Sadly, however, I left feeling like the real story had been silenced.
Merrigong Theatre Company presents
by Marcel Dorney
Director Anne-Louise Rentell
Venue: Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, 32 Burelli St, Wollongong NSW
Dates: June 7 – 16, 2012
Times: Tues 5 & 12 at 6:30pm; Wed 6 & 13, Thurs 7, Fri 8 & 15 at 7:30pm; Sat 9 & 16 at 2:30pm & 7:30pm; Thurs 14 at 11am & 7:30pm,
Tickets: $49 – $29
Bookings: (02) 4224 5999 | www.merrigong.com.au
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