By Tom Wright
Directed by Wesley Enoch
This story addresses the horrors of war, the damage it does to men, their families and communities. At face value we are seeing how indigenous characters responded to call to arms and how it impacted on their lives at a time when they were not even counted as Australian citizens.
These indigenous men all experience discrimination, race hatred and confusion at the white lies they are told by most of the men they encounter outside of their kin. People are damaged by war. Men are especially damaged by war; first to go and die in it. Some survive, many do not. The First World War was a numbers war. Strategies based on outnumbering the enemy; flooding as many soldiers in as possible. This is some of the most inhuman human behaviour drawing on belonging and ownership. People fight for their land and freedom upon it in differing ways; historically the Australian First Peoples were not a war like race so the moral compass gets a battering when young indigenous lads rush off to play their part in what is sold as a big adventure.
Many white Australian lads went off to the First World War pretending they were older (and wiser) than what they actually were; so why would it be different for young indigenous men? There is a hard wired desire to identify and conquer something grand in young men be it breaking the wildness out of a Brumby or crossing the sea to vanquish an unknown enemy.
Generations after this war it is still celebrated and many of the individuals have been lifted to the status of hero but indigenous men who fought in the First World War have not been lauded. They have received treatment more like the Australian’s who fought in Vietnam. They return damaged to a community that simply is not prepared or equipped to entirely deal with the transformed soldier; the broken men, the spirit stripped back, the grief on the surface. There are many little moments in this play that highlight the ironies and contradictions of serving the King. Overall the production is very good and brings a lot of emotionally challenging issues up for the audience to absorb.
I felt there were problems with the production of Tom Wright’s Black Diggers on opening night in Adelaide. I put it down to a cast and crew moving into a new venue as they tour this production. I wondered if they may have been feeling challenged by the very old size and shape of Her Majesty’s Theatre, and that it is not the ideal venue for their show; I certainly did. Sightlines, sound levels and awkward blocking distracted from the core action at times and made some scenes very difficult to follow.
Structurally the play flounders toward the end as Wright attempts to sign off on the story of each character he has introduced; this dragged at times. There is little joy for any returned soldiers, a lot of pain; in this case having so many scenes that seem like they are wrapping things up becomes frustrating. It felt like the stage is only a temporary space for this story; that the writer is thinking about the screen. I may be wrong about the writer’s intention but it gave me a strong impression that this is his ultimate goal, to see this story on the screen where a broader visual brush can illustrate the many resolutions. It is an important story; acknowledging the indigenous boys who served for King and Country, even though they mostly had little idea what they were getting into beyond the promised adventure.
The set, and the relationship the actors have with it evokes a strong Brechtian style: significant dates names and words are drawn onto the massive dark walls that entomb the action (only to whitewashed over later). The script bulges with poetic prose that sometimes requires less emphasis; it is a very thin line between sounding poetic and being poetic. It would be very easy to say it is a great production simply because it is an all indigenous cast and they work extremely well as an ensemble often hitting the beats in a scene like clockwork; it is a very good production but it didn’t rise to greatness for me because of technical failures. Songs sung early on were drowned out by the amplified backing music. Much of the direction has actors facing the audience and playing scenes out into the auditorium which stylistically feels awkward beside ensemble scenes where physicality and movement create atmosphere and flashes of stark light cast effective shadows.
There are deeply moving scenes of a young lad who comes home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that hit the nail on the head with hardly a word spoken; completely profound.
The cast switch from one character to another with simple costume changes and slight physical alterations proving that they have everything it takes to lift this production up but when you are struggling to understand what is being said their hard work doesn’t always reach the heights you know it could. I found this shortcoming disappointing, and I imagine it will be corrected before the play is presented again at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
There were curious local landmarks thrown in here and there to connect characters to our metropolitan area which seemed a little unnecessary and strained; characters saying they came from Thebarton and other local areas was a little odd and although it may have hit the right buttons for some locals it didn’t quite sit right with me, it seemed to be there for effect rather than authenticity. Maybe there were indigenous men from the inner city suburbs of Adelaide who served in the First World War, I have not noticed any in the research I have done but I am willing to be corrected here because this is very new territory. I am mostly aware of Saunders, the indigenous officer who served in the Second World War, another unsung hero of his day.
The nasty treatment of the indigenous men by the majority of white men back at home after the war is not really new information but it is obviously necessary to show, land grabs by Government and misunderstandings of motive by blood community are sad historic realities. Have things changed? Yes they have, but not as much as one would expect, and these experiences felt by the indigenous soldiers are not so divorced from the experiences of white men. It is the telling of the story and the demonstration of those very personal experiences that really touched me. The very basic human elements that show we are all essentially the same and equal in how we think, experience and feel.
There are lots of audience members who will not have had a clue of these First World War veterans and will have gained a much greater insight after seeing this play. It is a valuable story for us all and I encourage anyone who enjoys a good dramatic night in the theatre to go along but try to get seats in the middle of the row if you want a good a view of everything. Sitting in the first eight or nine seats cuts off some of the sightlines and may leave you wondering what just happened here and there.
I’m glad I saw this production; heartened to see such a wide range of indigenous actors doing fine work. I walked away feeling there was something missing from the text. I noticed the characters referred to themselves as a range of slang words including coon and darkie but I don’t recall ever hearing any of them speak about being a human. Again I may have missed this because there seemed to be some head mics working well and others simply not picking up what was being said, but it started a conversation between my brother and I as we left the theatre.
I’m not trying to say that all wrapped up in a neat little package, “this production is a conversation starter,” that would only be one part of what it is; there are a lot of really potent human moments that illustrate how we are actually all the same despite our differences. As constructs that are devised by greater controlling forces such as governments and monarchs impose inequality do they also teach inequality only to eventually steep the human spirit in righteousness? This is what I took away from Black Diggers.
Photo Credit: Branco Gaica