Actor-writer Anthony Newcastle loves a good yarn and it shows. His latest work presents a comical and opinionated series of yarns that address and play with contemporary “Aboriginal” and “White” issues.
Yarnin’ Up began as a one-man show, and has been expanded and developed with co-writer and director Mike Dickinson into a tight ensemble piece for four actors. The action is set in a Brisbane share house owned by Ken, a well-intentioned white Australian keen to “look after” Aboriginal Australians. But Ken’s Aboriginal tenants, Evey, a tough talking woman from St George, Jo, a young and idealistic singer-songwriter, and Malcolm, a “successful”, capitalist bureaucrat, are quick to challenge his patronising ideals.
Keeping the mood light and playful, the play presents, criticises and sends up each character’s (changing) viewpoints in turn. The audience is encouraged to laugh at Ken’s naive racist attitudes, and Evey’s down to earth fiery no bullshit philosophy (for she is just aiming to make it through another day and eat some chocolates). And instead of being shown as a champion of Aboriginal rights, Malcolm is ridiculed for being “a coconut black on the outside, white on the inside”: for he has completely ‘assimilated’ himself into white culture right down to the affected “Ciao” he shouts into his mobile phone.
But as the characters attack, discuss, joke, and banter the criticism is firmly placed on the character’s attitudes not the characters themselves… each character is treated with an affectionate disrespect. The play explores the traps of (excuse the pun) “black and white” thinking for as the play for progresses even the straight-talking Evey is shown to “play down” the more disturbing Aboriginal issues in order to get ahead in white society. This collection of “yarns” is a fantastic vehicle for the discussion of contemporary cultural issues, and touches on alcoholism, gambling, assimilation, “nigger farms”, cultural identity, and many other “cultural mine-fields” along the way. And at all times the writers maintain a deep respect for each character’s strengths and weaknesses: Evey is shown to be wrestling with her abusive attitudes, Ken with his confusion of issues of race, Malcolm with his weakness for capitalist ideals, and Jo is shown to be working through ideas of “reconciliation” versus cultural identity.
Most interesting is the moment after Malcolm, Evey and Jo have attacked Ken for his racist attitudes. Initially a deeply hurt Ken self-righteously exclaims that he is trying to “trying to drag the Aboriginals into the 20th century”, but is later shown to hold a great capacity for change. In these ways, Yarnin’ Up realistically addresses the foundation of racist attitudes and treats all perspectives with empathy.
The play follows the characters’ lives over a year, and Jo’s songs are placed between scenes to function as both a commentary and voice of hope. Performing the part of Jo, Ruth Ghee’s original music and beautiful voice provide a lyrical and reflective distance from the confronting issues of the production.
Mike Dickinson’s bold direction foregrounds the “storytelling” nature of this production. Choosing a performance style of direct address, Dickinson has the characters face front and clearly present their opinions. And under his uncluttered direction, just three chairs are enough to fill the large space of the Judith Wright Theatre, firmly placing the emphasis on the performers.
This show is marked by excellent ensemble work by the three main actors. Roxanne McDonald as Evey, Anthony Newcastle as Malcolm and Daniel Murphy as Ken create a very dynamic and engaging team and the audience immediately warm to their fully rounded characterisations. McDonald steals the show as Evey, a tough woman from St George who has come to try her luck in the city. I found her heart-felt and passionate monologue on the under-discussed “white issues” to be the emotional heart of the production. As Jo, Ruth Ghee’s performance and role felt removed from the play. This functions well when she is in “chorus” mode, but seemed to jar the flow of the performance when her character is integrated into the final scene.
The direct style of this play is complemented by Nadine McDonald’s simple and effective design: a white-drop sheet marks the performance space and is framed by a huge set of scaffolding stairs. Household junk (such as old furniture and building materials) under the stairs nicely place the action in an old Queenslander house. This design is enhanced by an earthy, textured backdrop, and by Jason Organ’s moody and evocative lighting.
The only major criticism I have of this production is artistic director Nadine McDonald’s program note: “Yarnin’ Up is a fantastic new work that enables us, blackfellas and whitefellas to embrace our differences and have a good long laugh at ourselves without having to lay guilt or blame. It’s a laugh! It’s a great time! It’s a great story! Sit back and enjoy!” This seems to promote the show as a “feel-good” production in which the audience will be “spoon-fed” a happy time. However, for me Yarnin’ Up‘ for all its humour and good-natured approach offers an uncompromising (and at times confronting) forum for contemporary debate.