‘York’ is the extraordinary new play written by two very well respected, young West Australian actors. Noongar man Ian Michael and Chris Isaacs. Ian has acted in several major WA productions and was a Black Swan resident artist; he has worked with the Malthouse Theatre Company in Melbourne. Ian has been nominated several times both here and South Australia for his acting and directing. Chris Isaacs started writing and acting several years ago, mainly with the Last Great Hunt, whose work has now travelled around the world. Chris has also won awards as a writer and co-devisor.
The two writers have produced something special, with incredible depth and although related in the Aussie yarn style has a multitude of messages that bring shame.
Many children – as did one of mine – went with the school to this very hospital and had similar experiences. This is a true story, told by the people who know the facts and not as in old and distorted news reports. After four years of research, employing both documents and face to face chats with Elders, the story came to life. This interaction shows the resulting depth and genuine feeling of the story. The complex interlinking of the stories across generations, the names of the characters and the development of the personalities is rare in contemporary plays. In the end one can only sadly ask, ‘Has anything changed?’
This exceptional play which is packed with tension, laughs and sadness is being presented by the Black Swan State Theatre Company in collaboration with WA Youth Theatre Company. The word ‘youth’ can make one think ‘tolerated amateurs’; wrong, the theatre skills of these talented youngsters have to been seen to be believed. They grabbed the audience and held them in suspense.
This must-see show, which will be a guaranteed sell out, can be seen at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Northbridge until Sunday 1st August.
The Scene: Act One. Today, at the abandoned Old Hospital in York, set on Ballardong Boodja. Then a flahback to Australia Day weekend 1985.
Act Two. The hospital post World War 1, 1920. Then back to 1834 – 40 and a Ballardong Noongar Community story.
The Set: The stage apron is the land outside the hospital. Every wall, piece of furniture and drapery is the same dark, dove grey colour. Through the central front door is a passageway and a flight of stairs leading to a hospital ward (now a dormitory). Up a further staircase to a locked door – that everyone is too scared to mention.
On the ground floor, to the left is a basic kitchen, to the right of the passage a dining room. The rooms all have stud walls but without the plasterboard, giving a skeletal effect.
An impressive stage effect in the final scene. The set and costume designer were Zoë Atkinson who immediately confirmed the era with her regalia.
Lighting design: by Lucy Birkinshaw was muted and subtle. With pale blue and sea green shades the scene looked drab and threatening. The carefully placed dimly lit spots picked out each actor faintly.
The lighting operator: Declan Barber had some beautiful slow fades.
Stage manager: was Claudia Blagaich, assisted by Sophia Morgan and their secondment Emily Dowden. Several spooky effects to animate, each done with spilt second precision. The cast were employed to move various items and props.
Radio mic technician was Georgia Snudden. Flawless.
As the lights dim an Aboriginal Elder, Dr Richard Walley OAM walks to the centre stage. With a delightful speech he welcomes everyone to his people’s Country. With genuine warmth, humour and boomerang music, he held the audience in awe for 10 minutes as he described the area around York. A charming start to the play that followed.
In the gloomy light of the Old York Hospital a young boy is moving around.
It is present day. The hospital lighting comes on and a team of removalists start moving in dozens of boxes. A lesbian couple, Rosy (Alison van Reeken) and her wife of 4 years, Aboriginal social worker, Emma (Shakira Clanton) have just bought the abandoned building in York and have big ideas of updating it. Just when the couple were thinking about unpacking, a local woman Shauna (Jo Morris) enters carrying a cricket bat, she explains that she has come to protect them from the ghosts. The women are horrified, no one had warned them their new home was haunted.
The clock goes back to Australia Day weekend 1985 and a group of Cubs, Scouts and Guides (Isaac Diamond, Sophie Quin, Elise Wilson) have arrived for an adventure weekend. The miserable caretaker, Mr Jones (Maitland Schnaars), sets out the strict rules for behaviour, before telling them about a poltergeist, the old matron of the hospital who regularly roams the building and how she ate children, one scrap at a time. Young Aboriginal lad Lewis (Benjamin or Jacob Narkle – alternating) is unfazed, however, the other children are petrified.
Later, it is 1920 and we are in the hospital. We experience the receptions and welcomes for the white and black soldiers as they return from fighting together, as one, in the Great War for the glory of Britain and its Commonwealth. Police Officer Robinson (Ben Mortley) is searching the town for a missing Aboriginal; could there really be the differentiated hospital treatment along with non-logical attitudes of the town’s people?
Composer and sound designer Dr Clint Bracknell has created a soundscape including bush noises, numerous spot sound effects and a blend of threatening music with rumbling effects that had the audience on edge.
Voice coach Julia Moody has produced fine interaction and projection, with the large age range of voices working together. The youngsters delivered their lines with confidence. The children’s fight was directed by Nastassja Norwood.
Off stage assistance included children’s chaperone Eleanor Moore, with dressers Anna Weir and Jemma Eton.
Directors, Clare Watson and Ian Wilkes have selected a magnificent cast. The adults are all major award winners, most with WAAPA or NIDA training, even the youngsters have an impressive CV of stage and TV appearances. Curtin and WAAPA student Alison made her Black Swan debut in 2004 with York will marking her 21st appearance for the company. She too was a Black Swan’s Emerging Writer and has a prestigious Equity Guild Award for acting.
The smooth movement around the three floors of the set is aided by dramaturg Polly Low. The actors moved naturally, appeared genuinely terrified, enunciated well and so created one of the most chilling theatre presentations I have seen.
In Act 2 the same actors, played similar personalities from decades earlier, and managed to create a body language that even seemed to suggest that era. Difficult to explain, but it worked very well.
The era depicted in the play showed simply, without excessive drama, how after 200 years the relationships of the town’s inhabitants had not moved on. The audience sat wondering how the status quo was still unchanged. The narrative was a wonderful, an ingenious way of hinting at the injustices. In war, the winner always writes the official news – could this smudging be the case in peacetime too?
An amazing piece of writing, delivered by a first-class cast guided by a sympathetic team of directors and technicians.
One of the most enjoyable major productions I have seen from Black Swan, and over the years they have had many excellent productions under their belt.