Origins is presented as part of the Mountain Festival and is a work in progress, likely to reappear at next year’s Ten Days on the Island (Tasmania’s biannual international arts festival). It’s a unique experience, actually because in some ways it’s not really theatre at all. Certainly it takes place in a theatre, on a stage, with an audience - in this incarnation at least, other venues might be worth considering - but it’s essentially a jam session mixed with personal testimonies, casual conversations and readings from scientific and historical texts.
The six performers include musicians and actors with varying degrees of stage experience. Some enlighten the audience with snippets from their own backgrounds. Aboriginal elder and writer Jim Everett, for example, talks poignantly about how he felt growing up as a Tasmanian Aborigine living in Victoria, isolated from his culture and identity. Others, like guitarist Andry Randriamahefa Sculthorpe and Matthew Fargher, who plays the role of Charles Darwin (well, he reads from Darwin’s work), don’t reveal their personal histories and are performers in the more traditional sense here.
The show starts with everyone chatting around a kitchen table, sharing stories and jokes, looking through a photo album. From there music just seems to happen. Sometimes it’s everyone singing with simple percussion accompaniment; sometimes it’s a band - guitar, bass guitar and drums. Sometimes the singing is solo, sometimes it’s a group performance and sometimes there’s no singing at all; but always there’s a sense of mutual support, like old friends just hanging out. This is a nice idea and works well most of the time, even when the singing is a bit rough around the edges.
The casualness of Origins, partly the result of insufficient rehearsal and partly a deliberate choice, is the most enjoyable thing about it. Not that bad acting is enjoyable and there are moments here that don’t quite get the point across, but there’s something refreshing about the approach, that seems to fit well with what is trying to be achieved: how to make rather intellectual concepts to do with cultural and biological evolution accessible to a general audience. There’s also discussion of Aboriginal history since white settlement - for many, by definition, a political discussion - and the spontaneity and lightness of parts of this show are an effective way to challenge audience preconceptions.
That said, there are moments in Origins that are consciously theatrical. Ruth Langford embodies a lot of the more dramatic moments - like the cries of the women in llias Velisaropolis’s story about the women of Souli, who threw themselves to their deaths while singing and dancing in a famous episode of Greek history... Or the Aboriginal mother separated from her daughter by the government’s assimilation policy (in Langford’s own family story), who is informed with casual cruelty of that daughter’s death. It often falls to Langford to keep up the energy of the group and she does this well but somehow the disparate styles don’t mesh. One option would be to develop Origins as a more polished production, which might mean employing more ‘real' actors. Another option would be to eschew high drama in favour of cultivating the piece’s quiet authenticity. As it is, the show sits rather uncomfortably between the two.
Interwoven with the music are bits from the writings of Charles Darwin and his theories about indigenous peoples. He believed that, in evolutionary terms at least, indigenous man was equal to the white man. This would have been a radical concept for the time, and is one of the most interesting points brought up here, with Everett reflecting that Darwin’s way of viewing the world was ‘just what we were saying all along’. There are some fascinating moments like this, with elements from different traditions and cultures juxtaposed in surprising ways.
The themes of place, homecoming, identity and ancestry are potent for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike, but Origins would benefit from further clarification of its central theme - even, potentially, in terms of providing an overall storyline (or some kind of simple device like chapter headings). But this is not a play and what Origins does best is the music. From Randriamahefa Sculthorpe’s islander reggae to Fargher’s folk fiddle playing to Lorrae Coffin’s heartfelt singing, all the music feels truthful and joyful. Perhaps, in the end, this is an odd sort of cabaret show, with the love of music allowing for a meeting of diverse minds.
by Jim Everett
Part of the Mountain Festival
Venue: Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre
Dates/Time: 7, 8, 9 March at 8pm
Tickets: $18/ $12 Concession
Bookings: TSO box office at The Federation Concert Hall, 1 Davey St., Hobart | 1800 001 190 | Booking fees apply