My first thought when the lights went up on Rainbow’s End was that the stage was too big for the story. Rainbow’s End is a domestic drama, set in the home of Nan Dear (Lillian Crombie), Gladys (Christine Anu) and Dolly (Chenoa Deemal), three generations of Indigenous women living near Shepparton in the 1950s, and the massive stage of the IMB Theatre at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre seemed to dwarf the set meant to represent the small shanty house.
From a purely technical point of view, I was probably right – the smaller Gordon Theatre in IPAC might have been a better fit. However, the domestic nature of the play does not mean that the scale is small. Although the story is nominally about these three women, Rainbow’s End is about equality, education, and the dream of something better – and in that sense, there can be no stage too large.
The three women of this play, who fight through social and individual tragedy to improve their lot, are all excellent. Christine Anu is fantastic in the role of Gladys, the idealist who is determined to fight for better housing for her community, despite her own lack of education. Chenoa Deemal is also very convincing as Dolly, Gladys’s bright, witty daughter, the only one in the family ever to have completed her schooling (and the character who is, in many ways, the catalyst of the plot).
One of the things I loved most about this play was the hunger for knowledge and learning demonstrated by both Gladys and Dolly, and both actresses managed to infuse this through their entire performances. However, for me, the evening belonged to Lillian Crombie as the irascible grandmother Nan Dear. Her nuanced performance, straddling the line between the desire to cling to tradition and the hope of a real future for her children and grandchildren, managed to be hilarious, heartbreaking and true all at the same time.
Special mention must also go to Garth Holcombe, who played not only all the cameo male roles in the piece but also the lynchpin role of Errol Fisher, naive young encyclopaedia salesman who falls in love with Dolly. I was initially a little sceptical about this character – why, I thought, does there need to be a middle-class white man in a piece which is privileging the voices of Indigenous women, a group who have traditionally been silenced? – but I was glad to be mistaken. The character of Errol demonstrated that however well-meaning someone is, however tolerant, unbiased and non-racist they think themselves, Australian society (in the 50s and now) always assumes that the white way is the right way, that Indigenous culture is something wrong that people need to be liberated from – and that this idea is not only counterproductive but offensive.
I loved the way the romance between Errol and Dolly was written in the script, loved the fact that the subaltern narrative of Dolly was not only aired but argued, loved the way Errol’s perspective changed over the course of the play, and Holcombe and Deemal did a great job with very difficult, complex and sensitive material.
Rainbow’s End is beautifully crafted, elegantly scripted and exquisitely performed. More than anything, it is an important play, a play that deals with social justice, human rights, and issues worth talking about, a play that privileges the voices of those who have been too often silenced, and this makes it theatre worth seeing.
Riverside Productions presents
by Jane Harrison
Director Craig Ilott
Venue: Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong
Dates: 24 – 27 August 2011