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The Visitors - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW)

Written by Jane Harrison. Directed by Wesley Enoch.


Reviewed by Justin Clarke

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Until 14th October, 2023


4 STARS


- A visually stunning adaption of Jane Harrison's play lights up the Sydney Opera House stage in a play astutely timed in the current climate -


I first encountered Jane Harrison’s seminal play, The Visitors at the Sydney Festival in 2020. This initial iteration was sombre yet strikingly written. It returns three years later in a new adapted version directed by Wesley Enoch and produced by Moogahlin Performing Arts and Sydney Theatre Company in what feels like an almost entirely new production. Its notions of dispossession and sovereignty are coated on the performers. From the contemporary suits worn by the characters through to the cultural liaison with Aunty Yvonne Simms and Senior Dharug and Dharawal language teacher Corina Norman in the addition of accurate Bidjigal dialect. The result is a production that feels extraordinarily prevalent, strikingly new and yet sadly familiar.


When first staged in 2020, Harrison and to some extent, STC, could not have imagined that the production would coincide with the day Australia has the opportunity to make a historic vote in the Voice to Parliament Referendum. With the referendum just around the corner, the play's focus on First Nation's sovereignty is all the more relevant


Sydney Theatre Company and Moogahlin Performing Arts production of The Visitors (2023). Images by Daniel Boud.


Set on a scorching hot summer’s day in 1788, the script deals with seven Elders from across the land we now call Sydney gathering to confront the oncoming presence of the looming nawi (canoes or in this case, the First Fleet) upon the Eora Nation. Harrison asks a variety of questions based on this pivotal moment in Australia’s history. If First Nation’s culture requires that visitors should be welcomed, how do you respond to a fleet of them?


The seven Elders offer discussions and anecdotes as they struggle to come to a unanimous vote. Maybe these nawi are a danger, or maybe they’re in need of help? After all, who leaves their Country and doesn’t return? Why would anyone seek a Country that isn’t their own? What can these strange (oddly pink) visitors teach, and what, in turn, can they be taught?


Under the direction of Enoch, the script soars to new heights. Enoch recognises that the heart of The Visitors is seeringly relevant and topical and as seen by a contemporary audience, stretches to how we treat modern day asylum seekers and refugees. Enoch’s experience as a Noonuccal Nuugi man unearths the show’s diversity in bringing together the different clans in Eora. Enoch's sharp direction is unsurprisingly well-attuned to the multifarious cultures represented on stage.


Gadsby’s use of corporate suits that each character wears astutely highlights the colonisation of the Indigenous cultures, whilst creating a dichotomy between past and present.

In comparing this version of The Visitors to the one I first saw at the Sydney Festival, I couldn’t help but feel that this staging is watered down to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Whilst lines such as “message sticks on silent” and “curiosity killed the echidna” highlight the erasure of First Nations’ language, they also come across as cheap laughs and weaken the strength of the script. In attempting to capture a modern day Australia through some of the language and humour added to this revised version of the script, the need to appeal to a more generalised audience fell beneath the rich specificity of her language and ideas.


Where the production solidifies its significance in the Australian theatre canon is in its coordination with cultural bodies such as Aunty Yvonne Simms and Norman, utilising drawings and weaponry used by the different clans. Elizabeth Gadsby’s design is earthy and accurately creates the coastal atmosphere of the Eora Nation down to the mounds of used oyster and mussel shells and the large rocky terrain that sits centre stage, feeling like it juts out of the Sydney Opera House floor. Aided by Karen Norris’ lighting design, the heat of the Australian sun blisters off the rocky surrounds of the set, illuminating drawings hidden beneath the backdrops at the play’s climax. Gadsby’s use of corporate suits that each character wears astutely highlights the colonisation of the Indigenous cultures, whilst creating a dichotomy between past and present. The gorgeously detailed reversal of this dichotomy at the ending of the play is a stunning image that solidifies a reclamation of storytelling. It’s something so simple that it becomes a statement so powerful.


The other addition to the production is in the casting of female performers Elaine Crombie and Dalara Williams. It’s a comment on the role of women in positions of power in First Nations culture. Crombie’s gruff and boisterous Jaky holds a steadfast authority amongst the other men, delivering some sharp jokes through astute comic timing. Williams offers a more contemplative performance as Wallace who refutes that the visitors should be run off, and offers that they should instead be welcomed. William’s rigid dialogue stopped her from giving Wallace more depth to her character and was a missed opportunity from one that is so rich on paper.


Joseph Wunujaka Althouse’s “young fulla” Lawrence brings a wistful air of youth among the elders and brings the most foreshadowing as he sniffles and coughs through yarns about the visitors. Whereas Guy Simon’s Gary holds sway over the meeting, reeling in each Elder at different points to keep the meeting from derailing. Beau Dean Riley Smith’s Albert is cautiously vicious, contained yet aware of the dangers that the visitors could bring. And the eldest of the bunch, Kyle Morrison’s Joseph brings arguments of reason amongst the slowly rising tide of debate.


...the need to appeal to a more generalised audience fell beneath the rich specificity of [Harrison's] language and ideas.

But it’s Luke Carroll’s Gordon who shines brightest, particularly in his closing monologue that offers a raw punch to the guts. Carroll’s steadfast dismissal of the visitors is tied throughout, leading the charge of the need to repel them from the shores. His ability to slowly release Gordon’s anger at the visitors is nothing short of a masterclass.


The Visitors is a powerful and often raw production that will impart a different reaction for each audience member. For myself, the guilt that comes with the privilege of being on Country was bubbling throughout. For others who may be questioning the need for a ‘Voice’ may find the answer within. For First Nations audiences the addition of authentic language and design elements should delight, whilst raising questions about honouring cultural values amidst an assimilation of cultures. The production will undoubtedly conjure up discussions and debate mostly positive, some perhaps negative, particularly in the face of the upcoming referendum. Hopefully future iterations of Harrison’s script and the production will stay true to the rich sense of culture at its heart, looking beyond the need to “appeal” to mainstream currencies.

 

The Visitors - Sydney Opera House

Director Wesley Enoch Designer Elizabeth Gadsby Lighting Designer Karen Norris Composer & Sound Designer Brendon Boney Associate Director Liza-Mare Syron Cultural Liaison Aunty Yvonne Simms Associate Designer Shana O'Brien Associate Sound Designer Amy Flannery Senior Dharug & Dharawal Language Teacher Corina Norman Dharug & Dharawal Language Teacher Jordan Ryan-Hennessey Fight & Movement Director Nigel Poulton


With Joseph Wunujaka Althouse, Luke Carroll, Elaine Crombie, Kyle Morrison, Guy Simon, Beau Dean Riley Smith, Dalara Williams


Marketing image Rob Hookey


Night with the Artists Mon 25 Sep, post-show Q&A


Captioned Performances Tue 26 Sep, 6.30pm Sat 30 Sep, 1.30pm


Audio Described Performances Tue 26 Sep, 6.30pm


Auslan-Interpreted Performances Thu 28 Sep, 7.30pm


Performance start times Preview performances 7.30pm In-season evening performances Mon & Tue 6.30pm; Wed – Sat 7.30pm Matinee performances Wed 1pm; Sat 1.30pm


Approx. duration 1 hr 15 mins (no interval). Subject to change.

















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