The Orphanage Project

(Queensland Theatre Company)


The experience of QTC’s production of Angela Betzien’s The Orphanage Project created a dual dilemma for this reviewer.

Rarely in recent times has the collective creativity and craft of a production and performance team been more imaginative and impressive. Pick your positive adjectives compelling, brilliant, masterful, dynamic fine, subtle, delicate apply them as appropriate to any aspect of the production or any of the multiple characters played by the six performers, and the conclusion that, finally, words fail, echoes in the corridors of consciousness.

Whence then the dual dilemma in approaching this review?

Firstly a forced reflection on why, when appreciation has been so heightened, was awareness of a progressively numbing posterior present ? Secondly, The Orphanage Project, although professing to adorn itself in the cloth of surreal drama, is potently, patently and self-confessedly political. As such, any reviewer risks the accusation of bias against the p.o.v. presented.

Credentials, political and theatrical, address the coincidence of a heightened head and a bloodless bottom.

The reviewer was an Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer: specialist in children’s law; has experienced the deaths in custody of clients first hand; respects the spiritual forces of the culture; has witnessed the releasing power of the smoke ritual and is graced to be called “Uncle” by some in the community.

With parents who sold the gold in their teeth during the Great Depression; a father who paid his young son a zac (5 cents) for a handful of dumpers to make rollies during leave from WWII; and remembered whisperings of Red Hill kids “taken by the State for their own good”; there was resonance in the non-Aboriginal elements of the piece.

For the rest, a knowledge of history, and a few plus decades of hands-on in the theatre arts and crafts are offered in resolving the dilemma.

In contrast to the performing arts (and drama in particular) politics, economics and law represent the great artificial social sciences. They are the primary tools of social manipulation. Perception and revelation are foreign to them. Mendacity and expedience are their regular travelling companions.

From the Greeks to Shakespeare to Rumpole to the West Wing and Law and Order, politics has provided characters and colour for drama, but rarely in dramatic history have one-sided “plays political” motivated, enriched or transformed our understanding of the human condition. In the writer’s experience the great political dramas of history, ancient, old and of our times were played out in the streets, not the theatre. Ask the Murris, the unionists and once upon a long ago, university students who took to the streets more for social principles than revised funding.

Save in the hands of a Shaw or the mythologised Brecht, most political dramas lack conflict and tension; lack protagonists competing for our sympathies, stretching us on the rack of our understanding until we beg (figuratively) for catharsis and resolution.

As political theatre The Orphanage Project lacks not only conflict and tension, but a sufficiently coherent dramatic structure to carry us on its endeavoured journey. Unfortunately neither the innovation of the production, nor the strength and believability of each character of each actor, could save the concept from imploding on its political self. It enthralled, but did not move this beholder. By all means present us with weeping social wounds, but conjoined to conflict as to cause and consequence.

Magicians do not perform the same illusion twice. The lack of structure and through line forces the production to do so. Only the discipline, integrity and creativity of the group save the writing from Koski (“anything goes but not everything works”) -like indulgence, devoid of any impact.

Ensemble work as superb as that of The Orphanage Project confirms

      Creative space and action
      can never be confined nor measured
      by compass, rule or square
      and its time no slave
      to calendars and clocks
      will ever be.

In such work no name should stand above another. If you would know who these vibrant young creators are, journey to the Bille Brown Studio. But go prepared. Take a cushion.

— Ron Finney
(Performance seen: Thu 23rd October 2003)