“The truth is stranger than fiction.”
A favourite phrase of those Hollywood types on the push to sell another film ‘based on real events’, and yet, a declaration that sometimes proves unequivocally accurate. Take, for example, the story of Noel Tovey (nee Challenger nee Morton). Raised through poverty and extreme adversity; starved, abused, incarcerated and molested, he traversed all these tragedies to become an internationally acclaimed ballet dancer and choreographer. Not bad for a man of Aboriginal and African descent born in the racial furnace of 1930’s Melbourne.
In Little Black Bastard, Tovey takes his audience through the trials and tribulations of his formative years, winding a tortuous path through the many buildings and institutions that he called home and past the numerous guardians that he either loved or loathed. Recounting his mother’s alcoholism and the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of both family members and strangers, his tale does not make for light entertainment and can be difficult to absorb, but for the brave listener, a tremendous epiphany of self discovery and survival is there to be enjoyed.
Choosing to deliver his yarn in as authentic a manner as possible, the production is fairly minimalist save only for some snippets of hackneyed audio to emphasise the influence of other forces on the direction Tovey’s life has taken. For the most part, the two hour long production is simply the man himself, chairbound, recalling with dry wit and reluctant ardour the events that have led to this point in his being, but occasionally there are moments of drama: piped gunshots and imagined soliloquies, for example, used to jolt the audience. Tovey has suffered unimaginable horror and betrayal in his years, and testament to both his strength and dramatic delivery, it’s ambiguous as to what is more shocking: the tortured expression on his face as he describes watching a fellow jail inmate being shot before him, or the jovial manner in which he drops lines such as ‘my uncle used to give me chocolates, but that wasn’t the only thing he put in my mouth’ into the mix.
Delivering so personally the horrific nature of his upbringing obviously takes its toll on the man onstage, who occasionally stutters through particularly painful memories and draws genuine gasps of sympathy and disbelief from the audience. But, between tears and poignant pauses, there are moments of smart comedy to temper the pathos. Tovey may be aged but he is a natural performer, delivering comic lines shrewdly in a monologue that is well structured to accrue maximum effect from each emotional transition. More importantly, he mixes his own personal experience with accounts of government and police figures to encapsulate the mood and racial prejudices of the time, again eliciting audible tuts and outraged whispers from the crowd.
At around 115 minutes long, the performance only begins to seem over long when Tovey sits down towards the end to read from a mighty tome recording the origins and largely superfluous activities of his ancestors, but these small indulgences can be forgiven, considering the tumultuous opening hour and a half. From the time Tovey enters Stage Left to the moment he retires following a standing ovation, he is utterly, utterly mesmerizing. An imposing figure at over 6 feet and clad in black his skin is lightened, by the spotlight, or age, or perhaps more fittingly after half a century of attempting to ‘fit in’. While the performance aspect of the show is obviously minimal, Tovey has judged the impact of his tale against the production perfectly, making Little Black Bastard the ultimate triumph of substance over style.
Australian Shakespeare Company presents
Little Black Bastard
Venue: Athenaeum Theatre | 188 Collins Street, Melbourne
Dates: Tuesday 15 – Sunday 20 June 2010
Times: Tuesday – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 5pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.au