War, race, pearls

Joanna Barrkman

Productions such as The Pearler are rare. Evocative and sensual, it had the strong basis of a well researched story, steeped in anecdote, memories and lives lived and lost. Set in the 1940s and using stories, historical references and photographic imagery, The Pearler explores the lucrative pearling industry that linked Darwin with neighbouring Asian cities such as Singapore, Kupang, Dili and Manila. Scenes playfully establish the cut and thrust of life on pearling luggers, the colourful onshore shenanigans and the danger and loneliness of the ocean’s depths. Gradually the lives of 3 characters—an Anglo Saxon woman and 2 pearlers, one Japanese and the other Aboriginal—become inextricably entwined.

As the show unfolds it reveals a little known episode in Australian history, depicting the internment of Japanese-Australian pearlers in southern camps during World War II. This experience shattered the lives of those involved and destroyed the racial tolerance of cities such as Darwin during that era. Juxtaposing the drama with historical photographic montages and eerie, wailing sirens, the tension and despair of the bombing of Darwin and detainment of the pearlers is strongly and poignantly conveyed.

The Pearler’s numerous whimsical scenes are founded on an engaging interplay of heightened physical characterisation, nuanced gesture and bold, oversized facial masks. Performers Nicky Fearn, Samantha Chalmers and Ben Tyler adeptly convey an array of emotions through physical characterisation and gesture. Exceptionally well crafted puppets enact ships in storms, birds in flight and underwater scenes conveying the other-worldliness of the ocean’s depths.

Tina Parker’s production design is striking: large cloth sails are manoeuvered to create a range of architectural forms while incidental design elements are sparingly employed, complementing the grandeur of the sail cloths and reinforcing the story’s historical setting. Kim Baston’s atmospheric, original musical score and an audio-visual montage by Elka Kerkoffs added substance to the tale as it unfolded.

Sarah Cathcart’s direction seamlessly harnessed all the elements of story, physical performance, design, music and montage to create a sophisticated production which adeptly revealed personal and social aspects of north Australia’s rich racial and labour history. Congratulations to Darwin’s independent production house Business Unusual Theatre for bringing this highly theatrical and socially relevant production to fruition.

Business Unusual Theatre, The Pearler, concept Nicky Fearn, director Sarah Cathcart; Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin, July 6-17

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 44

© Joanna Barrkman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004