Coranderrk tells the true story of an Aboriginal reserve established outside Melbourne in 1863. It became home to many of Victoria’s Aboriginal communities displaced as a result of white settlement. The station’s initial success was quickly foreshadowed by the settlers’ desire to reclaim this small but fertile area and led to the 1881 Victorian Parliamentary Enquiry around which Belvoir St Theatre’s current production centres.
This is the second incarnation of this work in as many years; co-written by Andrea James and Giordano Nanni, and directed once again by Isaac Drandic. However this production sees the work undergo a few major changes. While the earlier performance was built solely on parliamentary transcripts, the current interpretation strips them down while also incorporating one of the leading Aboriginal activists of the reserve, William Barack (Jack Charles), as narrator. A further variance is the use of only five actors (all with Aboriginal backgrounds) to fill the numerous roles while the original work relied on both black and white actors playing individual parts.
A basic knowledge of the events of Coranderrk is undoubtedly beneficial when viewing this piece as time spent piecing events together can detract from the overall message. With abundant ground to cover in a mere hour, the rapid-fire dialogue often feels rushed with the story consequently suffering. Similarly while there can be no doubting the power of hearing white settlers’ oppressive sentiments spilling from between Aboriginal lips, the ceaseless flitting between characters, genders and races proves excessive. Removing detail from the original transcripts leaves further gaps.
Regardless of these shortfalls this remains a remarkable story. The final ten minutes sees the narrator guide the audience through the unique world of the Aboriginal people and this, combined with authentic photos of Coranderrk residents, evokes tears in many audience members. The shame is that these emotions are not summoned earlier or more consistently throughout.
BY LEE HUTCHISON