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Stolen - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW)

Written by Jane Harrison. Directed by Ian Michael.


Amalgamating stories of the stolen generation into five unique characters, 'Stolen' is a challenging and evocative work that reminds us of our duties to upholding an apology as a nation


Reviewed by Claira Prider

Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company

Until 6th July, 2024


After responding to an ad in the local paper asking for a writer/researcher to tell the story of people from the stolen generation, Jane Harrison’s play originally titled ‘The Lost Children’ came to fruition. Developed over five years with input from many indigenous creatives, some who were stolen themselves, from the writer's note in the program she states their brief was "to tell many stories, not just one, and not depict Aboriginal people as all having the same experiences". First premiering in 1998, the year after the Bringing Them Home Report was handed down, Stolen critiques the policy of the Australian government from the mid-1800s-1970s which saw the removal of “half caste” aboriginal children from their parents, to be raised in white, middle-class families to assimilate into white culture.

 

The writing presents a series of episodic vignettes that sees each characters’ stories evolve. The style is non-linear and there is little interaction between the characters; most of the storytelling alternates between performers engaging with us as the audience and talking to themselves. Scene changes often align with dreaming vs reality or sleeping vs waking, stories run concurrently and only sometimes intersect, and there is a lot of narrated characters, some solely narration, some represented by shadowy, nightmarish puppets on stage. For much of the work the characters are waiting and hoping, there’s so much exposition and so little action, it’s hard to follow, but impossible to look away.


 Stolen, Sydney Theatre Company (2024). Photos by Daniel Boud


Wearing dull, faded house clothes, the cast enter the theatre from around the auditorium. We hear them before we see them, calling out in despair, confusion and heartbreak as they plead for any information that will help them find their parents. The voices clash, becoming shriller and more distressing as they make their way through the audience to take their places on stage. High pitched, echoing, eerie string music plays as they line up, evenly spaced, facing the audience across the front of the stage, ready for potential adopters. We watch the hopefulness and confusion turn to hopelessness and defeat, as they begin to realise the home isn’t trying to build them up to be selected for adoption, but to prepare them for lives of domestic labour.

 

Renee Mulder’s set is comprised of oversized furniture; an iron, institutional bed frame and a gigantic, towering filing cabinet with old, mismatched suitcases scattered around the floor. This towering world distinctively highlights the characters’ powerlessness, temporariness and fear. Even as the characters grow up, that powerlessness seldom seems to change, their nightmare goes on.  Much of the characterisation in earlier scenes when performers are presenting as young children sees the use of baby-talking voices and cutesy physicality. The writing, set and lighting demonstrate their childish innocence so clearly that at times the cutesy representation of a youngster feels unnecessary and somewhat overdone, to the extent that it undermined the performances.


As I reflect on the state of our policies and inaction...the message on the banner hits home

 

James Brown’s composition and sound design brilliantly reinforces the impending sense of doom throughout the work, with sounds of rain, looming footsteps, the ‘line up’ bell, as well as cutting the tension and building the humour in needed moments of relief such as the hold music on the phone. Mainly using soundscapes of high, string instruments, stringed instrument harmonics and percussive sounds, the sound design fuels the works intensity. There’s a particularly powerful musical moment in the scene where Jimmy’s despair overcomes him as he’s consumed by self-loathing, hurt and betrayal. The sounds of string instruments swell, becoming higher pitched, louder and faster. While not atonal and jarring, the constant unresolved cadences enforce such a sense of discomfort – it’s an introspective and unsettling kind of confronting. Trent Suidgeest uses various forms of lighting to amplify the impact of the work. Harsh lighting expertly focusses in on the scrutiny the characters are under when lining up to be selected for adoption, the shadows cast by handheld lamps used by performers brilliantly reinforces the sense of isolation and terror, and images from an overhead projector shine across the back wall of the theatre while spotlighting the characters’ narration.

 

Playing the role of Ruby, Kartanya Maynard vividly embodies that incomprehensible sense of hurt and violation that is so deep, and happened so young that it completely devastates their ability to grow and blossom as a person. Stephanie Somerville playing the role of Anne, beautifully portrays the feeling that she doesn’t belong anywhere; she’s not white enough to be white, and not black enough to be black. Matthew Cooper’s Sandy is particularly heart wrenching in the scene with the tinned peas, as we the audience become the antagonist he’s demanding answers from. As Shirley, Megan Wilding ‘s vulnerability and authenticity is humbling, and her growth from young child yearning for connection and the feeling of home, to heartbroken mum begging for her child back, to the bittersweet, sorrow-stained love and joy she gets from being a grandmother, is powerfully moving. Jarron Andy is outstanding in the role of Jimmy. Jimmy has the most dramatic arc of the characters and Andy’s performance leaves the audience winded. The devastation depicted in his story is breathtaking and like much of the work, had me thinking about it for days after – Jimmy presents a sobering reminder of how little has changed as we look at the incarceration rate of Indigenous people in Australian prisons today. 


I left feeling frustrated and unsettled...And I think that’s exactly the point. 

 

The work closes, scored by Kevin Rudd’s apologies to the indigenous people of Australia as the characters pull a banner across the stage that reads ‘Sorry means you don’t do it again’. As I reflect on the state of our policies and inaction, as we continue to fail our indigenous peoples as a country, as we see big mining companies continue to decimate sacred sites with little consequence, the message on the banner hits home, as empty words and promises fill the theatre.

 

The writing is exposition-heavy, lacking direct or clear interactions, intersects chaotic and hard to follow timelines by weaving between dreaming and reality, then and now and sleeping and waking. I left feeling frustrated and unsettled; the characters were hard to connect with because of how disjointed and isolating the writing was, it was not cathartic, the audience weren’t given any sense of closure or emotional release. And I think that’s exactly the point. 


 

Director Ian Michael

Designer Renée Mulder

Lighting Designer Trent Suidgeest

Composer & Sound Designer James Brown

Movement Director Danielle Micich

Fight Director Tim Dashwood

Assistant Director Megan Sampson

With Jarron Andy, Mathew Cooper, Kartanya Maynard, Stephanie Somerville, Megan Wilding

Marketing image Rene Vaile

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