Lessons in Flight | Darlinghurst TheatreKyas Sherriff and Matt Edgerton. Photo - Nairn Scott

‘Lessons in Flight’
, presenting at the Darlinghurst Theatre is a moral tale but like any good morality play it couches its message in gentle humor and in very moving visual and rhetoric images.

It is a joint production with the Darlo Theatre and Frederick Copperwaite, Director, Amanda Bishop also costume design and Lily Shearer. It made its debut at the third Victorian Indigenous Playwrights’ Conference in 2003 at which it was the only such work. It is intended that it spearhead a new indigenous theatre company named Moogahlin Theatre, a Bunjalung word meaning ‘playing around’ in 2008 and has been invited to present at the Woodford Dreaming Festival next year.

The paucity of drama representing an indigenous style certainly cries out for a specific drama company to act as incubator for such works. Without such a cocoon the unique chrysalis of Aboriginal drama is unlikely to ever take flight.

‘Lessons in Flight’ is by an indigenous author and involves indigenous characters but in its present form it is now firmly representative of the Aeschylean theatre thread of the West. Both the repeated prayer sequences which establish the divergent emotional paths of the two girls and the final image of reconciliation strongly establish it in that tradition.

The lack of an indigenous dramatic style is curious given that the aboriginal peoples have such richly evocative, image based histories. The reason might lie in the basic variance of language identified by linguists, notably Dixon (The Language of Australia, 1980). While his work has not specifically concerned language in term of dramatic presentation, it highlights the fundamental difference between language construction in Indo-European languages and the language forms that comprise the many Australian Aboriginal tongues.

Language structures are believed to represents inherent thought processing (Corbalis, Hand to Mouth). It may be that those who come from an aural tradition where ‘word forms’ effectively translate into ‘phases’ in their literal counterparts wouldn’t naturally apply the western dramatic form to their story telling. The characteristic was commented on by Peter Weir in an interview with Judith M Kass on the ‘The Last Wave’ (NY 1979). Weir expressed the view that aborigines have a different perspective in dramatic interpretation. In directing David Gulpilil he noted, ‘We had to act it out in pantomime and destroy the language … use other means of communication’. An aural tradition may well lead to a different way of communicating experiences. In practical terms story telling becomes causally driven rather than outcome driven.

To subject indigenous playwrights to the rigors of our preconceived notions of drama is effectively to emasculate the form.

While ‘Flight’ might now be a well structured play in our perception, it can only be conjectured as to how it may have evolved with a different understanding. Nevertheless author Maryanne Sam tells her story very well indeed. It is a tightly crafted drama owing a good deal to the several revisions that have been pressed upon it since its emergence in 2003. After further development it presented again at Newcastle as part of the 2005 National Playwrights’ Conference and has undergone still further revisions before the present staging.

One of the play’s attractions is the fact that it keeps the cause of the dramatic contention under wraps until the end of the play, not an easy achievement considering the subject matter. In order to preserve its tantalizing development it would not be appropriate therefore to refer to the driver of the conflict.

Suffice to say that the moral presented here is one of truth, to ourselves as much as to those around us. It brings to mind the famous Polonius indictment to his son on departure for England, ‘To thine own self be true’. It might well have been the parting advice of the young mother to her children. Instead her dying request was to her own mother to look after them. From this premise is constructed a development which allows the audience to conjure what they will in terms of back story.

The notes relate that the story unfolds in a present (1997) through a past some thirty years before. Copperwaite seamlessly moves the action between the two time periods and several intervening ones as well. The economical cast allows the play to drive the action relentlessly to its climax without the commonly experienced distraction of multiple characters in indeterminate time zones.

The story on its face is a simple one. After their mother’s early death the two young aboriginal girls are left to fend for themselves until their grandmother eventually turns up. This isolation and interdependence forges a closeness which the intervening fostering sours into bitterness, driving them apart. The play asks us to consider this breakdown in relationships as well as its consequences on the neighbour who has inevitably fallen for the elder sister.

It is a tribute to the cast, Kyas Sherriff as the elder sister Rita, Kylie Coolwell as her young sibling Menen and Matt Edgerton as Lesley, the boy next door, that the multiple age transfers were all made with credibility and consistency. All gave very strong performances both in terms of character and relationship. Edgerton’s mock bravura in his attempts to impress his lithesome neighbour and Coolwell’s infectious tete-a-tete with the Lord Jesus in evening prayer invests the characters in their younger selves with great charm.

It was Sherriff however who flawlessly captured the duplicity of a child caught between her own need to be supported and the realization that she had to give comfort to another. Here was a little girl having to stand taller than her years would have welcomed and obliged to carry responsibility in the place of innocence.

Of the many images presented one of the most enchanting was that of the young Rita fighting back her own grief on discovering her dead mother, while shielding her younger sister by explaining how their mother had to rest before a long trip to the stars. When Rita finally succumbs to her own emotions the young Menen has been so bewitched by Rita’s magic she is oblivious to her sister’s distress. She continues to meticulously search out other stars for her mother to polish.

Sherriff was able to translate the duality into the older character giving her a brazen charm cloaking a world weary spirit. It was a very accomplished performance.

The set by Jacob Nash captured the confinement of the piece with its stark paling fence. It also facilitated the contrasting modes of entrances and exits. Menon, now in hospital for investigative surgery occupies the space. The mature Leslie, the treating nurse, makes his entrances in orderly fashion from around the barriers, while as a youngster he ingeniously contrives to come through them. Rita however is pressed into coming over the top, dramatically highlighting her brash impulsiveness.

There was a problem presented by the use of simulated grass as a general floor covering.  Grass, real or simulated, is very specific in terms of reference. It constantly evoked an association with the back yard. Images of grass getting into the sheets were ever present when the action moved into the bedroom or hospital. A similar issue is raised by the extension of the palings behind the bed.

The lighting by Sean Pardy was specific and well defined.

In the end there came an echo of Christ’s own prayer, ‘… you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’ Ask any child where heaven is, at least any one still allowed to believe in a heaven and they will invariably point to the stars.  Maybe time will prove them right after all.
Certainly it seems Sam would have us believe so even though her own interpretation of heaven may have been massaged into a Westernised vault.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Frederick Copperwaite present
by Maryanne Sam

Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre Company | 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Dates: Wednesday 31 October to Saturday 24 November 2007
Times: Tuesday – Saturday 8pm, Sundays 5pm
Tickets: Adult $30, Concession $25, Preview/Subscribers $20
Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987

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