One Night the Moon is based on a true story from the 1930s. The young daughter of settlers in outback Australia, goes missing. Her father refuses the help of an Aboriginal tracker and insists on carrying out a European-style line search. In the process any traces of his daughter are almost completely obliterated.
John Romeril has adapted his 2001 award-winning short film (co-written with Rachel Perkins who also directed the film), for the stage. The end result is visually, aurally and emotionally stunning, the outcome of what must have been a really effective collaboration between cast and crew - actors, musicians, animator, visual artists, set, lighting and sound designers.
I love that it is an 'historical story', as that allows today's audience to say ”it's not us, it's a story from a while ago; let's just calmly look at it and not feel on the spot”, says Romeril. But it is a story that all can relate to, the story of a child lost in the outback, a story that has become iconic in Australian art and literature. The audience is drawn into this tragic story and left contemplating our connection with this land of ours and its original inhabitants. Over the centuries non Indigenous Australians have frequently failed to respect the knowledge and experience of the traditional owners of this land and learn from them, too often with tragic results, and this is just one of those stories.
As a stage production One Night the Moon is a truly unusual work, hard to classify. Whilst the songs drive the narrative it is not an opera, nor is it a musical, or a play with music. In the program notes Romeril describes his script as an Aristotelian tragedy, built on the unity of time, place and action but with Brechtian features married to the expository techniques … in Broadway and Asian music and dance dramas. With such a wealth of input and a mix of styles the end result could well have failed. Instead it succeeds magnificently. No one element dominates, instead live music, song, dialogue, animation, set and multi media blend together to create an effective whole.
The performance begins quietly with slowly dimming light and sound effects creating the atmosphere of the bush. A small screen stage right reveals images of Victoria's Grampians (Gariwerd) and the Wimmera Plains and, as Ursula Yovich (the Tracker's wife) sits watching with us, there is a gentle litany of place names. We are Tuning Into the Land which is the title of the first song performed live on stage by the band comprising Deirdre Hannan, Maireed Hannan (musical director and composer), Ben Hendry, Nick Tsalvos and Rens Van Der Zalm.
We are then welcomed to country in the traditional manner. Yovich bundles and burns some gum leaves and the smoke wafts into the front rows of the audience. A screen descends across the stage with a central image of the bush. It is set alight and burns slowly to reveal a man and a woman in shilloutte and then a child's voice is heard with her mother telling her it's time for bed. Torchlight behind the screen lights up, one by one, a series of lithographs, aquatints, sketches and oils depicting scenes which offer a chronology of depictions of the area from the nineteenth century up until today – works by such artists as Eugene von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier, Walter Whithers, and Arthur Boyd. We watch as an animated image of the moon waxes and wanes and then as a young girl, fascinated by the planet, floats up towards it and blends into it (animation by Dave Jones). The accompanying music and singing is a lullaby, One Night the Moon, written by Paul Kelly and John Romeril. The drama begins, heralded by drums as father and mother call their daughter, with silence the only answer.
There are many memorable and moving moments in One Night the Moon. The program lists 'chapter titles' (in language and in English) which appear as surtitles above the stage, but to me they are more like the themes of succeeding stanzas of a poem, for this production is truly poetic in its impact. Equally striking are the pared back sets for the Tracker's cottage and the Farmhouse. Simple, one dimensional screens adorned with the trappings of the home, stand at either side of a dark empty space, a space which evokes the deep gulf that separates the two families, the two cultures. Later Albert, the tracker (Kirk Page) and Jim, the farmer (Mark Seymour) stand on opposite sides of the stage singing This Land is Mine (Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody). In contrast to Jim's singing of his owning the land, Albert sings of his being the land.
Later, Yovich sits quietly at stage right running her hands through sand on a sand tray. The images she creates are back-projected forming a backdrop to Jim's desperate search for his daughter. The result, a beautiful, moving Aboriginal style artwork. From time to time we are given glimpses of landscapes behind the sand only to have these washed away as Yovich's hands run through the sand. We are again reminded of two very different perceptions of the land.
It is the women, Rose the mother (Natalie O'Donnell) and the Tracker's wife, also a mother, who slowly and tentatively reach out across the divide of bigotry and misunderstanding. Jim's search having failed, Rose turns to Albert for help in finding her daughter, singing to him 'there's a story in your eyes, a story I can't read' – Hidden in Your Eyes (Kev Carmody). Rose gives the tracker the dignity of addressing him by his name and asking him to call her Rose. It is Albert's wife who cradles Rose in her grief.
The final impact is heart-wrenching but beautiful, poetic in its intensity. Rather than ending with grief the final scene has Yovich centre stage, the only point of light in the darkness, singing Moonstruck (Kev Carmody), the words of which remind us that it is our connection with the land and each other that will help us weather our sorrows and heal our wounds.
One Night the Moon is a credit to all involved. Directed by Wesley Enoch, with musical direction by Mairead Hannan, set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, lighting desight by Niklas Pajanti and sound design by Kelly Ryall, live music performed by Deirdre Hannan, Mairead Hannan, Ben Hendry, Nick Tsiavos, Rens Van Der Zalm, and starring Mark Seymour, Kirk Page, Ursula Yovich and Natalie O'Donnell there is certainly a wealth of talent involved with this production. And this doesn't take into account some twenty songs.
One Night the Moon is visually, aurally and emotionally stunning; a unique work and a must see.
Malthouse Theatre Presents
ONE NIGHT THE MOON
Adapted by John Romeril
From an original film by John Romeril & Rachel Perkins
Director Wesley Enoch
Venue: Merlyn, The CUB Malthouse
Dates: September 11 – October 3 2009
Opening night: Wednesday September 16 at 7.30pm
Times: Tuesdays 7.00pm, Wednesday – Saturdays 7.30pm, Sundays 5.00pm; Matinees – Saturday 19 September and 3 at 2.00pm; Thursday 24 September at 1pm.
Tickets: $15 - $49 + booking fees of $1-$2.50/ticket
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au | 9685 5111