Indigenous playwright Meyne Wyatt’s debut hits the mark.
Playwright and actor Meyne Wyatt in City of Gold. Image: Brett Boardman.
A haunting didgeridoo opens City of Gold as the dawn light rises slowly on an Indigenous actor, fishing with his canoe and spear and balancing perfectly on one leg. It is so still and creates such a beautiful image that it could be any time during the past 40,000 years. We are brought sharply back into the modern day by the insistent ringing of a mobile phone. The lights come up, noise ensues and a camera crew and director burst onto the set of the Australia Day lamb advert that is being shot, berating our fisherman Breythe (Meyne Wyatt) who had forgotten that he had tucked his phone into his loincloth. The atmosphere is broken, the audience laughs profusely at the clever gag and continues to laugh as the director, perfectly played by Christopher Stollery tries to cajole Breythe into making a clearly racist commercial. Just watching this as a white person makes one squirm, as it should, while at the same time we smile at the humour.
Written by Meyne Wyatt, who also has the starring role, the opening of City of Gold sets the tone for the whole work. We see the traditions of Aboriginal society coming up against the realities of modern-day Australia where the lack of opportunities for young Aboriginal people is overwhelming. The young Breythe wants to be an actor – not solely an ‘Indigenous actor’ – but he is always stereotyped. Wyatt’s story is deeply personal and subjective, perhaps too much so, but it is crafted with honesty and love and he plays Breythe with a mixture of wry intelligence, tenderness, anger and despair. We empathise with his journey during the play and consequences that he faces. His is a marvellous and deeply felt performance that makes us both tearful and indignant.
The end of the first scene sees Breythe quit the advert, due to his father’s death and his return to Kalgoorlie to do his duty to his father and see his family again. Older brother Mateo meets him with hostility, resenting his desire to seek another life elsewhere. Although played convincingly by Mathew Cooper, with a barely contained rage and resentment, his diction was difficult to understand. The deaf younger brother, Cliffhanger, was sensitively played by Jeremy Ambrum and he had some great lines. Long-suffering sister Carina (Shari Sebbens) was a feisty and strong presence on the stage. The rhythm of the language used by the family, their interactions between each other flowing from anger to love and back again, were sharply perceived. Wyatt’s ability to express humour in some highly charged and depressing situations and his sensitive writing about family life had a candidness that rings all too true.
The play is peppered with flashbacks to life with Dad when the children were younger and what he taught them about their history and traditions. As Dad, Maitland Schnaars, was authoritarian, stiff and unengaging, perhaps deliberately so. Dressed in a suit and tie throughout, he appeared anachronistic and unconvincing, not the father imagined from how the family speak of him. Schnaars was much more convincing as the messenger bird, the impressive Willy Wagtail.
To pay for his father’s funeral, Breythe returns to the lamb commercial, subjecting himself to even more humiliating misrepresentation that depresses him as we lead into the second act and his father’s funeral. His early monologue in Act 2 where he states ‘being black and successful comes at a cost’ discusses tokenism and how he prefers the honesty of the old-style racism rather than the new political correctness where nothing has really changed. This was difficult stuff and could probably have done with some judicious pruning to tighten the drama and delivery, however honest it was.
The ending is bleak and probably anticipated. Ultimately, what we learn from the play and its author is that not much has changed for Indigenous Australians over the past 50 years since the 1967 Referendum. Meyne Wyatt says that he wrote the play as much to tell his story as to give himself a decent job, as he was disillusioned with the roles he had been offered. This is both an indictment of our society as well as of the entertainment and theatre culture in Australia today. Praise then to artistic director Sam Strong for having the strength to program an unknown, first-time Indigenous writer to deliver a main season play at Queensland Theatre. This was a powerful, relevant and timely production receiving a standing ovation on opening night.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
City of Gold
A Queensland Theatre and Griffin Theatre Company co-production
By Meyne Wyatt
Director: Isaac Drandic
Set Designers: Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri
Costume Designer: Nathalie Ryner
Lighting Designer: Jason Glenwright
Composer/Sound Designer: Tony Brumpton
29 June-20 July 2019
Bille Brown Theatre, Queensland Theatre