Seems Like Yesterday takes you into the Vietnam War, and doesn’t let you out until after the heartbreakingly touching finale. In between, through George Bostock’s mesmerising evocation of a war that Australians would rather forget, you get a glimmer of insight into what it must have been like to be a young serviceman conscripted into a world where the only relief from stark terror was mind numbing boredom, where all the people you loved were out of reach, and you found yourself growing to love the soldiers you fought with and depended on.
The fact that Bostock is an indigenous writer of the Bundjalung people, and that the central character reflects some of his experiences during that war, adds a further dimension to a play that has much to say and only rarely labours its points. When his soldiers grapple with issues such as discrimination, prejudice and the Stolen Generation, it’s one to one, up close and personal. The small group trapped together in this isolated sector of the military zone are a disparate lot, culturally, ethnically, racially, and temperamentally. And director Nadine McDonald of the Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts has assembled a cast that does them justice. The most senior, and paternal, of the soldiers is a South Sea Islander played with wonderful presence by Ariu Sio, as a caring but authoritative leader. Bradley Byquar is the ruggedly assertive but warm hearted newcomer to the group, Stewie Jackson, and the quality of his performance marks him out as one of the Indigenous stars of the future, whom Kooemba Jdarra is committed to nurturing. He is well-matched by his on-stage sparring partner Paul Denny, as the racist Tasmanian, John Bowden. The development of their relationship runs along conventional lines, but becomes something fine through the quality of the acting and a script that doesn’t mince words.
Other standouts are Marc Richards, who makes the character of Peter Davis an extremely likeable conciliator and larrikin, and Roxanne McDonald, who opens and closes the play as Stewie’s feisty Nanna, and in between is the grieving spirit accompanying Stewie to the war. Also playing able servicemen of divers backgrounds are Sean Dennehy, Nigel Poulton and Yalin Ozuculik. Designer Alison Ross brings the stage to the audience in a way that draws them most effectively into the tension of the battlefield and the only note that jarred was the use of a dummy as a dead Viet Cong.
This short and bitter-sweet play works on a number of levels. It serves as a contribution to the growth in understanding of Aboriginal history from personal testaments coming through indigenous literature and the theatre. At the same time, it is a long overdue memorial to a cohort of marginalised young men who were never given their due for what they were required to do for Australia. And it is an engrossing theatrical experience. For all of these reasons, if you see only one play this year, this should be the one. And if you do, then allow yourself some time to take in the foyer of the Merivale Street Studio, which displays not only a moving collection of Bostock’s own photographs of that war, but also a copy of a 1992 feature of The Australian that draws together the obituaries and photographs of 500 young soldiers who never came back. These, too, will break your heart.
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