The White Divers of Broome | Black Swan State Theatre Company

The White Divers of Broome | Black Swan State Theatre CompanyLeft – Yutaka Izumihara and Miyuki Lotz. Cover – The White Divers of Broome. Photos – Gary Marsh and Fiona Hoy

The early 1900’s was a time of change across Australia and the world. The White Divers of Broome, a story about the introduction of the White Australia Policy and its effect on the Broome pearl diving industry is full of greed, racial tension, betrayal and survival.

It is boom time in Broome, 1912. Piggott, the undisputed Pearl King has imported three Royal Navy deep sea divers to see if “white” divers can find pearls as well as cheaper Asian labourers and still turn a profit. The Asian crews are not happy, and work against the English men creating a combustible and volatile situation. It’s a fascinating tale, and an enjoyable production.

Written by Hilary Bell, the play is inspired by the book of the same name by John Bailey. This is the fourth production to be produced as a result of a Black Swan State Theatre Company commission (part of the Rio Tinto Black Swan Commissions), and is showing as part of the Perth International Arts Festival.

The production kept the audience engaged for the duration, in part due to some sharp direction by Kate Cherry. Nerves caused a few overlapping conversations, and the occasional scene could do with a bit more work, but overall it was a smooth, fast paced play.

Bruce McKiven’s set; combined with Trent Suidgeest’s lighting will take your breath away. Grandiose in scale and utilising the entire width and depth of the stage, the central area is enclosed in the ghostly oversized bare ribs of a ship. Panels of corrugated iron (or similar) alternately enclose the sides, or open up the area dependant on the scene. Effective use of scrims and set pieces flying in and out (still a novelty after so many years at The Playhouse) adds more variety. Nothing is ever constant in this set, it is fluid and yet harsh.

Suidgeest’s lighting, including his brilliant use of hanging globes and hundreds of pin point lights is pure beauty. The whole production has a sepia tonal element to it, even as Suidgeest successfully manages to capture the heat and brightness of the northern Australia light. In contrast, the underwater blues and greens washed across the stage as the Divers sink down further into the depths of the ocean is equally beautiful and mesmerising.

Elegant costumes (Alicia Clements) were reminiscent of the time and symbolic of the racial divide (white for the “whites”, colours for the “coloureds”). After reading in The West about the drama in sourcing original diving helmets, I was keen to see the replacements. I was not disappointed, as they looked perfect, and the actor’s use of them appeared (scarily) realistic.

The production fell down with inconsistent performances across the ensemble, with a few leads outshining other average performers. Ian Toyne as the scheming, greedy Piggott was perfectly evil, but overpowered and dominated in scenes when others underwhelmed (such as the Magistrate played by Greg McNeill, or any of the minor female characters). As the opinionated journalist Regina, Jo Morris brought a fiery emotion to several scenes but faded towards the end of the play.

The scenes spoken in Japanese between Nishi (Yutaka Izumihara) and Yukiko (Miyuki Lotz) added distinction. The surtitles (above the scene on a black scrim) were necessary, and thankfully the emotions effectively carried across the language barrier. The two actors appeared more natural in the Japanese scenes than in the English ones, which lent authenticity, but left the English scenes overplayed.

I hope the ensemble acting will stabilise over the course of the production. The White Divers of Broome is still a show to see; it is a captivating insight into early Australia, the introduction of the White Australian Policy, and racial tensions which still exist today. You could also attend purely for the stunning set, costume and lighting design. This is one production where the creative elements outshine everything else.

Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
The White Divers of Broome
by Hilary Bell

Director Kate Cherry

Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 28 January – 16 February 2012
Tickets: $69.50 – $54.50

A Perth International Arts Festival event

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