Adelaide Festival 2004: RiverlanD

Keith Gallasch

Windmill Performing Arts
The Space, March 3-7

Luke Carroll, RiverlanD

Luke Carroll, RiverlanD

Luke Carroll, RiverlanD

Inspired by Ian Abdulla’s autobiographical Murray River country paintings, Windmill Performing Arts’ play for young people, RiverlanD (director Wesley Enoch, writer Scott Rankin, design Richard Roberts) begins with a high quotient of wit and magic. On a sand-filled stage rising to a riverbank and the deep blue of an Abdulla sky, a bunch of pelicans gather around a campfire. joking about their artist creator as if he is God—he who created everything from a tube of paint in 6 days and on the 7th had a cup of tea and a lie down and and that’s how they got the Dreaming. After a bit more postmodern larking with the audience and a litany of Murray floods (the biggest being in 1956) the play settles into a more conventional framework. The rich and idiosyncratic suggestiveness of Abdulla’s naïve paintings inspired by childhood recollections gives way to contemporary sophistication and social complexities.

Headlights blaze through the night as an urban Indigenous family arrive in search of their country: Nanna Gracie (Lillian Crombie) knows this land, her bureaucrat daughter Gail (Pauline Whyman) doesn’t (beyond her report on the sustainability of Indigenous culture in the Riverland), and her children, Luke (Luke Carroll) and Milly (Ursula Yovich), are already missing city comforts. The comedy of camping out is broad: Gail has her laptop open in minutes and does Tai Chi in the morning, Nanna has her portable TV, so she won’t miss The Simpsons (“that poor whitefella needs our help”) and the children sleep in the car when Nanna’s farts rock and billow their tent. The tone is comic but the dislocations are serious. There are 2 generation gaps here, complicated by the absence of the children’s father and Nanna’s mysterious refusal to share her culture with her daughter. And there are spirits about, warning children not to come down to the river at dusk. But they do, entering another time, a time of flood, where the ghostly Paulie (Rod Smith), somehow connected with Nanna’s silence, introduces Luke to male independence and he risks all on a lone canoe ride on the mighty river.

As in all plays predicated on secrets, the truth will out, and here it comes in an ungainly, complex rush of danger, guilt and forgiveness. Had such a short play been opened out a bit and had it stuck with the breadth of concerns it opened with it might have been more magical and less melodramatic and convoluted. Poor Gail and Milly get less and less attention as the play increasingly swerves into a male rite-of-passage drama coupled with an abrupt revelation of Nanna’s tragic past. By now the play’s humour has long gone. Nevertheless, RiverlandD keeps the audience fascinated with engaging performances, cut-out puppets of birds and river skiers in the Abdullah style, spooky apparitions and immersive lighting. Children from the Kaurna Plains School ably wield the pelican and river life cutouts and play spirits but their presence is oddly subdued, suggesting a need for greater integration in subsequent productions. With a bit of work, RiverlandD deserves a long and successful stage life, as long as its initial success does not blind its creators to the work’s flaws.

It’s wonderful that a play for young people should have a prime place in an international arts festival. The only pity was that the audiences were largely adult. Windmill CEO Cate Fowler quipped, “For future Windmill festival shows all adults will have to be accompanied by a child.”

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 28-

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004