Sometimes a person’s death overshadows their life, the events triggered by death turning them from a fellow human being into a symbol. Hipbone Sticking Out is a fantastic recreation of the last two hours of the life of John Pat, the teenager (the boy) whose death in police custody in 1983 lead to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
A middle-aged Aboriginal man wearing white t-shirt and white shorts stares through a translucent screen, gaudy with scenes from Renaissance paintings, at an identically-dressed Aboriginal teenager, collapsed on the floor. Pluto (Lex Marinos) arrives from European mythology to guide the John Pat that-would-have-been through the last 2 and a half hours of his 16-year-old life, his head swelling while he lies, ignored, on the cell floor. The character of Pat, both young and old, guides the tale through the personal and social history that has led to his plight, getting arrested outside the pub, that night in 1983. Moving from the privileged high life of Dutch merchants to blackbirding on the pearly depths of Broome, the arrival of colonial settlers with their diseases and property laws, the rules of conflicting laws and white “justice”, the journey to the present day is complex, arduous and confronting. However the presentation is gripping, providing self-aware manipulation of theatrical conventions, inspired musical selections, clever choreography, a range of powerful recurring motifs and humorous banter between characters creating accessible humanity that draws the audience closer into the action.
Trevor Jamieson is strongly compelling, his middle-aged bewilderment, denial, anger and sassiness creating an even greater sense of loss and wasted potential than the collapsed form of younger John Pat, played with sparky innocence by Nelson Coppin. The ensemble works around the journey through the past and future and back to the moment of death, with performance shared evenly through the cast. Shareena Clanton as Mavis Pat, John’s mother at different stages of life through the show, brings a devastating calm and insight to her own speeches. On another level, Clanton is hilarious as a caricatured spoilt Dutch girl in the Colonial era.
Musical director Nate Gilkes masterly handles a diverse range of styles, all delivered by outstandingly talented soloists and chorus. From Britney Spears to Queen, thunderous Latin requiems to Ngarluma language traditional chant and modern song, with sea shanties for good measure, the musical selection reflects the development of the history and the perspective of the tale, tying in subtly yet strongly with the consideration of which culture owns which part of the story.
A cunning stage design allows nifty on-the-go set rearrangements and progresses with the play to remove elements to open up the stage to leave it open for the brutal ending. Genevieve Dugard’s set design works with the ongoing commentary on theatrical conventions to further reflect the nature of the framing of the narrative.
Tess Schofield has developed costumes that provoke a range of reactions – from parodying the exoticism of “the native” in the dress of European characters, to a confronting “indigiporn” outfit featuring shiny orange hotpants, and the quietly everyday outfit of the main character, chilling in the implications of “situation normal” in this tragedy. Matt Cox presents sophisticated lighting techniques as an organic part of the development of the tale.
On opening night, the gripping motif of a young injured boy calling for his mother was given a sharp twist when Clanton paused in delivering her part of Mavis Pat to reveal Mavis Pat herself sitting in the audience. Despite the extensive back story of generations of people, the constant insistence on ownership and participation in the history by all present, the actual human experience suddenly came on me like a rush and I was left gasping with the crushing vertiginous injustice of history that has swept up so many lives in its path.
A vastly ambitious work, Hipbone Sticking Out encompasses life, death, history, injustice, resentment and the forlorn calls of a dying boy, all alone. Putting not only the issue of deaths in custody into perspective, it calls into question the entire dynamic of settler history in Australia in a compelling spectacular display.
Big hART presents
Hipbone Sticking Out
by Scott Rankin
Director Scott Rankin
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth Cultural Centre
Dates: 29 September – 4 October 2014
Tickets: $55 – $35
Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au | 132 849
Also 2014 Melbourne Festival
17 October – 21 October 2014