Black Diggers | Queensland Theatre Company

Black Diggers | Queensland Theatre CompanyPhotos – Jamie Williams

On the centenary of the First World War, as our historians and artists cast their minds back and draw new focus upon the horrific dawn of the twentieth century, old stories are uncovered and presented to us anew on a wider stage. From its straightforward yet immediately evocative title, Black Diggers establishes its purpose from the outset – to bring to our attention an important aspect of our history largely forgotten by the mainstream. Here we are told the tales of an ignored intersection between postcolonial Australia’s enshrined “coming of age” story in the crucible of the Great War, with the ongoing struggles of our Aboriginal population to gain equality, respect, or recognition. This is important storytelling to bring to the national consciousness, and we must thank this talented group of theatremakers for bringing it to us. It is an important play, however, it is not one without its technical flaws.

This is the articulation of an unacknowledged history, it is the story of how Indigenous boys and young men enlisted to fight for a country that did not even regard them as citizens of their own ancestral land, and by extension were lining up to fight for the very Empire that had dispossessed them. It is an account of dignity gained through comradeship-in-arms, a genuine sense of egalitarianism won in battle, and the respect of one’s fellow man gained not just through valour, but by the basic human camaraderie of surviving together in the hellish trenches where, as one digger puts it “all faces looked brown in that mud”. It is also the tale of these gains quickly lost and new hopes dashed, as returning Aboriginal soldiers found the country they fought for no more accepting than when they left it. Their privations and profound inequality were as bad if not worse than when they departed, finding the promise of seeming racial blindness between those in uniform in no way reflected in the population back home.

With the assistance of researchers and an Indigenous reference group, Tom Wright has crafted an ambitious play, which takes on these weighty national themes through an ensemble approach to telling many facets of what is ultimately one large collective story. A kind of theatrical montage, an anthology of vignettes mixed with some ongoing character threads, these disparate men and events weave together many elements of the historical experiences of WWI Aboriginal servicemen, from their conflicted motives for enlisting, to being rejected then accepted by their predominantly white fellow Australian comrades, to awkward encounters with other racial minorities of the British imperial forces. We follow them through the filth, combat, hospitalisation, religious and spiritual crises, becoming P.O.W.s, objects of anthropological study for the eugenically-inclined Germans, and are made complicit their experiences of heroism, murder, shell-shock, humour, boredom and terror. And all of that before the many confronting and humiliating aspects of their return to an uncaring and oppressive homeland, one which excludes them from RSL clubs and often takes what little land they had as acquisitions for redistribution to repatriated soldiers, though only the white ones, of course.

It is powerful stuff, a sobering history in dire need of being told, and told it is with gusto and pathos by an excellent ensemble cast under the acclaimed direction of Wesley Enoch. The only remaining question then is whether, in the act of telling it, they have ultimately achieved a work of intrinsically solid drama as well. Reluctantly, I would say both yes and no.

Tales of war on stage are surprisingly common given the obvious limitations of verisimilitude even in big-budget spectacle shows like War Horse, yet as always it is the infinite imaginative potential of theatre that makes such material an engaging challenge to stage. Enoch has an approach of effective simplicity, combining period uniforms (yet oddly anachronistic civilian clothing) and props with some intense sound effects, but otherwise leaving it to his talented cast to evoke the scenes from Gallipoli to Passchendaele on a largely featureless black stage. They do so admirably in terms of action and dramatics, although the device of daubing names and dates in increasingly overlapping white paint on the background is a device which seems to distract more than inform. In the actors’ capable hands we are truly transported to all the scenes of the outback, the trenches, prisoner of war camps, and Returned Service League clubs which the winding, diffuse narrative takes us through.

Given that Wright’s playscript must inevitably have involved at least some degree of conflation and fictionalisation in order to dramatise real historical accounts, one wonders if there was a temptation to take this a step further and contract the narrative to one or two primary amalgamated characters, upon whom to focus the drama. This seems to have been done to a certain extent with a few key ongoing characters, but due to the many unrelated episodes and the necessarily large amount of doubling by the cast, one frequently feels a bit lost for someone to follow. Ultimately, this does impart a wider cross-section of the Aboriginal wartime experience, which is a good thing given the aim of the play, but one can’t help wonder if edging a bit more towards the principle of universality through specificity might have yielded a more engaging narrative result.

There are many gripping scenes -- funny, tragic, stirring and depressing, from bold acts of courage to fascinating moments of quiet interaction. One such highlight was a scene in which two soldiers meet in the dark and discuss their common hometown, with the white soldier incredulous upon being told that his father had once whipped the other’s father, until the lighting of a cigarette illuminates his comrade’s aboriginality. Even captivating scenes like this underscore one of the potential theatrical issues with this large, dispersed approach to the storytelling, that of racial ambiguity in the doubling.

By necessity of its sprawling narrative, the amount of doubling requires a rapid turnover of the characters being represented, including many transitory Caucasian roles. Thus there are many scenes where the racial politics being presented can become confusing when the easily-missed dialogue alone is often the only cue as to whether the actors are playing Aboriginal or European characters in any given point. Of course, this is probably quite intentional, as the blurring of racial lines amongst the soldiery is a key theme of the play. By the same token, a major early sequence concerns the issue of many Indigenous volunteers having to lie about their parentage in order to circumvent the Army’s policy of only accepting “half-caste” Aboriginal enlistees arbitrarily deemed to be of “substantially European descent”, a range reflected in the play’s all-Indigenous cast.

As it stands, for all its powerful stories and excellent performances, the play does unfortunately lag, bogging down in some long monologues towards the end which, while intrinsically engaging in isolation, seem adrift from the prior tempo of the storytelling. Although in truth the play is not overly long, it does feel so at times, presenting something of a dilemma in speculating whether an interval would have helped with pacing, or simply deflated the play’s dramatic tension and undercut its pleasingly epic qualities. In the absence of a clear structural point at which to do so, it seems that a one-act presentation was probably the right choice, but the resulting piece as a whole would have benefitted from some tightening up. Lacking the structure of artificially imposing a specific plot (at least, beyond the broadest parameters of before, during, and after the war), the audience is left with few cues as to where they are in the performance’s ebb and flow, with the ending seeming both drawn out and abrupt, although ultimately very powerful.

Black Diggers is an important act of cultural sharing and truth-telling, powerfully and evocatively told – a theatrical event, to be sure, and yet I remain unconvinced whether it is, at least in this current form, a particularly well-crafted play. Dramatically, it is perhaps not a great deal more than the sum of its parts, yet it is a piece which deserves your time and attention and tells an indelible history that will stay with you.

A Queensland Theatre Company & Sydney Festival Production
Black Diggers
by Tom Wright

Directed by Wesley Enoch

Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House, East Circular Quay
Dates: 18 – 26 January, 2014
Tickets: $72 – $56
Bookings: 1300 723 038

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