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Stolen

A stirring revival of Jane Harrison’s play
Sydney Theatre Company
by
ABR Arts 14 June 2024

Stolen

A stirring revival of Jane Harrison’s play
Sydney Theatre Company
by
ABR Arts 14 June 2024
Kartanya Maynard, Megan Wildin, Mathew Cooper, Stephanie Somerville and Jarron Andy in Stolen (photograph by Daniel Boud)
Kartanya Maynard, Megan Wildin, Mathew Cooper, Stephanie Somerville and Jarron Andy in Stolen (photograph by Daniel Boud)

On its face, Stolen presents as simple storytelling. Five characters, five distinct journeys, five personal narratives, bound together within an overarching story: that of the stealing of Indigenous children from their families, their culture, their land, a shameful, reprehensible blight on our national history, a blight that continued into recent history, the impact of which is still being lived and experienced.

First staged by Wesley Enoch for Playbox in 1998, shortly after the delivery of the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report to the federal parliament, Jane Harrison’s play has garnered critical and audience acclaim, and become a fixture in drama and English curricula across Australia. In a genuine sense, Stolen is a contemporary classic. Such a label, however, does not really capture just how signal a piece of work it is.

Storytelling is the essence of theatre: a gathering in the darkness to be told tales, to have them acted out for us, and, in the process, to be affected. Stolen takes up this idea in the most direct of fashions, confronting its audiences with truths, with testimony, with narratives. There is a virtue in the representation of these stories. Less explicitly, we encounter in our shared experience as an audience a kind of somatic implacability: we share feelings in response to the truths being represented, feelings which are real, collective, and powerful. These qualities operate to reassure us of the truthfulness of the stories we are being told.

Ian Michael’s direct, uncluttered production unfolds on Renée Mulder’s stark, malevolently anodyne stage: a vast, institutional no-place, grey-toned, furnished with massively outsized furniture: a huge iron-framed bed stage left, a jumble of abandoned suitcases piled against the wall (a powerful gesture towards other narratives of twentieth-century dispossession and genocide); upstage right a towering filing cabinet.

Performers enter from around the auditorium, taking up carefully spaced positions on the forestage, facing the audience, establishing, partly through an escalating soundscape of voices, their characters: five Indigenous children, ripped from their families, cast into this bleak, soulless institutional space.

Michael’s direction draws on the post-dramatic playbook: actors address the audience directly before breaking into enacted scenes. There is a fluid choreography of large-scale set elements; booming voices, character voices melded into sonic palimpsests, overhead projectors and hand-held light sources manipulated by performers to create images and shadows, a thrumming and, to my ears, too insistent musical score.

Or perhaps it is pre-dramatic theatre: storytelling as ur-theatre. There is no sweeping dramatic action, no singular dramatic conflict driving the action. The antagonists, if there are any, are represented by disembodied voices, or as pale, rhythmically bobbing puppets appearing in children’s dreamscapes: adoptive families, some well-meaning, others more sinister.

 Jarron Andy as Jimmy in Stolen (photograph by Daniel Boud)Jarron Andy as Jimmy in Stolen (photograph by Daniel Boud)

There is, however, something of a climax late in the play: a devastating set piece so intense and appalling as to defy comprehension. Jarron Andy’s beautifully drawn Jimmy, consumed by self-loathing, mounts the immense filing cabinet upstage, where, earlier in the performance, he had hid from those who had come to take him away. With urgent, slashing strokes, he sketches chalk prison bars on the walls behind him, and with a smooth facility speaking to an awful premeditation, removes his socks, knotting them together against a soundtrack of violent, descending tones – a highlight of James Brown’s score.

Jimmy’s apotheosis is harrowing and all but unwatchable. But this is a climax which is not in the service of catharsis, nor of a lesson. There is certainly no closure, no dramatic resolution. In place of denouement is a struggle to articulate just what we are to do with the truths we have witnessed. Instead, Stephanie Somerville, who has been playing the character Anne, but is now something else – perhaps just herself – turns to the audience. ‘Suppose you want a happy ending?’ And doubles down: ‘don’t you?’. And again: ‘Admit it.’

The moment is anticipated earlier in the play. Mathew Cooper’s Sandy – and in this instance it is a character speaking – offers to tell the story of how a can of peas destroyed his life. He asks the audience whether they want to hear it and, of course – because this is a theatre, and this is a character operating in a fictional representation – no one replies. And so he asks again: ‘Well, do ya?’

The audience, then, is the antagonist. Are we going to sit there, surfing the emotional roller-coaster, or are we going to listen to what we are being told? Because it’s not enough that something is said, that something is represented. The production – perhaps the play – demands something more. What might such a listening entail? Storytelling starts to feel less simple, less innocent. Hearing a story comes with obligations.

At the end we have a recording of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations. The cast – no longer characters – unfurl a banner across the stage: ‘Sorry Means You Don’t Do It Again’. Then they line up on the front of the stage, eyeballing us. No longer characters, but themselves: Kartanya Maynard, Megan Wilding, Andy, Cooper and Somerville, proud Indigenous Australians (all of whom have just performed with resolve, grace, gravitas and playful twinkles of the eye). No longer (just) telling stories. No longer representing. Looking at us. Demanding, not angrily, but implacably, that our listening moves beyond passivity, beyond the virtue-hit of an emotional journey intensified by a cinematic score, into an undertaking, into a commitment.

Stolen is not a text to be judged or even read in the context of a contemporary political or cultural context; nor is a production such as this to be assessed in terms of a particular urgency or relevance. Rather, the work is here to remind us that an apology is so much more than the balancing of an ethical account book, a transactional clearing of the decks in order that we can just get on with things and put the past behind us. An apology is an undertaking, forever.


 

Stolen (Sydney Theatre Company) continues at the Wharf Theatre until 6 July 2024. Performance attended: 11 June.

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