Whitefella Yella Tree – SBW Stables Theatre (NSW)
Written by Dylan Van Den Berg, Co-directed by Declan Greene and Amy Sole
Reviewed by Charlotte Smee
19 August - 23 September 2022. Contains haze, loud noise, blinding lights, sex scenes and weapons. It contains descriptions and representations of colonial violence.
Whitefella Yella Tree is one of those great Australian works that expertly toes the line between heartfelt, hilarious, and harrowing. Ty (Callan Purcell) and Neddy (Guy Simon) are teenagers at the dawn of colonisation, tasked with meeting every blue moon under a lemon tree and sharing information between the River Mob and Mountain Mob. They weave stories together, and a romance blossoms. They imagine themselves floating up the river past their mobs, sunning themselves like lizards under a waterfall, and caring for each other. Then, Neddy’s sister is taken by the Whitefellas.
Dylan Van Den Berg’s writing glitters with meaning. Using a simple concept of teenage love allows for a deeply personal entry point into exploring such a huge, ever-reaching thing as colonisation. Van Den Berg draws us in with Ty and Neddy’s silliness, opening the play with code names, bickering and stories of the strange tree with yellow fruit the Whitefellas brought. Ty and Neddy use stories to make sense of their world, letting us see glimpses of the love and care that surrounds them. Before Neddy spends too long with the Whitefellas, their queerness is just another amazing thing they experience, and the shame comes only when he covers himself up with a soldier’s uniform and learns of God. Van Den Berg uses these tiny, emotional moments to show us the larger devastation and the resilience that queer, First Nations people carry with them every day.
(c) Brett Boardman
Callan Purcell as Ty is tender, adorably clumsy and reverent. He has been chosen by his elders to learn the stories of the River Mob, and the moments when he tried to remember over and over were heart-wrenching. Guy Simon as Neddy is fast, fierce, and passionate. He loves his sister with all the force his 16-year-old self can muster. Both actors bring such care to their roles, with a great balance of humour and heaviness that draws you into their world.
Set by Mason Brown, lighting by Kelsey Lee and sound design by Steve Toulmin is magical, creating a small corner of an expansive world complete with mountains, sunsets, and sunrises. The passage of time was cleverly shown through props like chalk marking Ty and Neddy’s different heights on the wooden wall, and Neddy dropping mouldy old lemons when he returned after a long absence. Costumes also by Mason Brown are brilliant, with Neddy’s brightly coloured modern clothing changing to a drab, ripped soldier’s uniform after he lives with the Whitefellas; a perfect way of visually demonstrating the changes in him.
Special mention should also go to the giant lemon tree in the centre of the ceiling, that drips with water down into a mossy knoll in the floor. This tree serves as a constant reminder of the bitterness leaking into Ty and Neddy’s lives, that grows and shrinks in darkness and light.
Some moments felt somewhat overdone, with black outs and bright flashes of light adding an extra layer to already heavy action. The real gems in this play are the ones that breathe with life; letting you see Ty’s sickness in the cold light of day or giving us only Neddy and Ty’s faces as they gushed about each other to their families.
Whitefella Yella Tree welcomes you in, and quietly shows you how it feels to carry the grief of colonisation. Sitting under a tree with Ty and Neddy for a moment is an absolute privilege - providing an important space for white audiences to listen, and First Nations voices to be heard. This story guides with a firm, yet gentle hand, and doesn’t try to be anything other than it is: brilliant.
Whitefella Yella Tree plays at the SBW Stables until 23rd September. Tickets can be booked at griffintheatre.com.au.
CREATIVES & CAST
Co-Directors Declan Greene and Amy Sole Designer Mason Browne Lighting Co-Designers Kelsey Lee and Katie Sfetkidis Composer & Sound Designer Steve Toulmin Dramaturg Andrea James Stage Manager Isabella Kerdijk Intimacy Coordinator Akala Newman courtesy of Key Intimate Scenes Community Engagement Consultant Neville Williams Boney Elder-in-Residence Uncle Graham Simms With Callan Purcell, Guy Simon