Richard Frankland’s play Conversations With The Dead premiered 11 years after the 1987-91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Commission published over 330 recommendations, including the promotion of self-determination through Indigenous representation and land rights. Since then the Mabo and Wik decisions have been watered down, ATSIC abolished, while Indigenous men and women continue to die in custody and by their own hands. On the 15th anniversary of the Commission publishing its findings, the Indigenous Affairs Minister insisted that such matters are up to states — despite the 1967 referendum that specifically empowers the federal government to make legislation applicable to Indigenous peoples.

While staging Conversations in 2002 seemed like a proclamation of angry mourning, watching it today after yet another 15 years of inaction and black deaths is liable to cause one to fall into the pitchest of pitch-black cynicism towards the potential of theatre, art and activism to have purchase on those situations needing intervention.

Alan Little, Conversations with the Dead, photo Jon Green

Yirra Yaakin may be refusing a reading of our sense of impotence, yet the production still prompts such questions. The 2002 premiere (reviewed by RealTime) should have been a wakeup call for a hideously uncaring, violent nation to get its shit together. But that did not happen, and it will not now. In the state where Conversations… is being performed we have Australia’s highest per capita Indigenous incarceration rate, only slightly below that in the US for black people.

In his opening night speech, author and former Royal Commission Investigator Frankland insists that when you have stories, you have hope. But it’s hard to entirely agree. In the play, Frankland’s alias, Jack, offers a seemingly endless series of self-excoriating reflections, repeatedly talking with the helpless, often angry ghosts who surround him. Beer bottles are a constant, and Jack relates how each day he counts the places from which he could hang himself. He is only safe when inebriated, in a corner, back to the wall, having located the exit route and identified all the weapons in the establishment (chairs, glass bottles etc). In one scene, he relates how a racist comment left him standing weeping over a bloodied, unconscious drinker.

Maitland Schnaars, Alan Little, Conversations with the Dead, photo Jon Green

Much of the action is performed in and around a metal car frame, or on an abandoned car seat. The play becomes a metaphorical road-trip performed by a man locked behind mental, historical and social bars as he careens through a landscape of mourning towards violent self-immolation. Jack does indeed find death, rushing into a storm at a seaside cliff, only to be tossed back into a tree, where he loses consciousness. The play is silent as to whether or not he wakes. Although one feels he should, in light of Australia’s never-ending race nightmare, the possibility that he will fall into a deathly coma cannot be ignored.

Two themes confuse this sorrowful reading, the main one being the mobility of the car itself. Australia has a history of road movies in which the protagonists traverse the fault-lines of race (eg Backroads, 1976, Beneath Clouds, 2002). The automobile set design for Conversations… symbolises not only a gaol cell (hung with socks such as those used by one man to hang himself) but also shifting bubbles of calm amid all the deaths invoked.

Jack is played by two actors: Maitland Schnaars and Alan Little. Jack works on a boat, and although the ropes and knots affixed to bars forecast the deathly nooses that blight his existence, in this sea-tossed cage ropes can be comfortably held and mastered. A similar emotional and corporeal ease occurs when Jack (now played by Little) converses with Uncle (Schnaars), who affectionately daubs the bars with a brush. Like the deceased body which both Schnaars and Little later wash clean of blood, the world they inhabit is treated with care.

The bleakness of the production is further countered by the sharing of roles. Schnaars excels at the presentational mode, speaking in third person about himself, while Little is more inward. Schnaars is tall and when his physicality lets go — as when he runs at the cliff — he funnels space, sucking it up and filling the room. Little is firmly grounded; more weighty than expansive. Not only Little and Schnaars speak for Jack. Simone Detourbet, otherwise playing the protagonist’s sympathetic yet exasperated wife, also voices him at one point, entering something like a fugue state beside the others.

Peter Docker, Maitland Schnaars, Simone Detourbet, Conversations with the Dead, photo Jon Green

In short, the performance extends and shares its affects and roles. Jack is not quite Richard Frankland, and nor — obviously — can he be me. I am both a spectator and a gubba. Yet the absent bodies of the dead, ghosted so effectively on stage, do seem spectrally exchanged and embraced in this work, even as they physically fend off the entreaties of the living characters and, by extension, us in the audience. There is no catharsis in Conversations With The Dead. The situation is too dire. And the masculine self-harm dramatised here is genuinely disturbing. The gravelly, DIY aesthetic seems to reflect this jagged, aggressive maleness, which is both Jack’s strength and his weakness. It too can be turned around and shared. The production functions then less as protest, and more as a collective remembering.

Yirra Yaakin Theatre, Conversations With the Dead, writer Richard Frankland, director James Taylor, performers Maitland Schnaars, Alan Little, Simone Detourbet, Peter Docker, Calen Tassone, Tornina Torres, design Chris Brain, lighting Chris Donnelly, music Zac James; Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, 18-27 May

Top image credit: Alan Little, Tornina Torres, Conversations with the Dead, photo Jon Green