Quasar Thakore Padamsee travels to Sydney and catches The Man from Mukinupin.
Of songs, fire and racial slurs
For the third time in five years, I found myself back in Sydney. And anyone who has followed my articles will know that high on my travel agenda is trying to watch theatre in the city I am visiting. Although this trip wasn’t on work (cousin’s wedding), the agenda was the same. In the two non-wedding days, I had to watch at least one play!
Sydney plays host to one of my favourite fringe theatres in the world, The Belvoir Street Theatre; based slightly on the Royal Court Theatre, with two performing spaces, an upstairs and a downstairs. Last year I had witnessed The Seed a brand new play about Australian identity. Strangely the theme was the same again, although written over 30 years ago to celebrate 150 years of the white man in Western Australia.
To be honest, The Man From Mukinupin wasn’t my first choice. The plan was to go to the intimate Downstairs theatre and catch Ladybird, a play about a young man having one last party with his friends before he joins the army the next day. Unfortunately being “pay as you like” Tuesday, by the time I got to the front of the queue it was all sold out. In a moment of panic we picked up tickets to Mukinupin and dashed to the Upstairs theatre.
We were quickly bundled into our seats and the show began. In Australian theatrical tradition Mukinupin is seen as a modern classic, reflecting the times and issues of the people and their history. Set just before and after World War I.
Mukinupin is a small town on the edge of the desert in Western Australia. The story is about two brothers Jack & Harry Tuesday. Jack works in a grocer’s shop and is in love with the grocer’s daughter, Polly. Harry is a rough drunk and is off at war, and in lust with a “half-caste” – half white, half aborigine called Lily. All the characters in Mukinupin refer to her as “Touch of the Tar” – someone with a bit of ‘black’ in them. A horrifically derogatory term, but one that is very apt for the 1910s Australian psyche.
The story is quite an epic. It has an almost Steinbeckian feel to it. As it unfolds, we discover that this little town has a very dirty little secret. Polly and Lily are actually half sisters, both fathered by the grocer, Eek. The grocer’s wife, on hearing about the affair with Lily’s mother, makes her husband lead an armed force to wipe out the local aborigine population.
The play seems to take the pace of a light hearted musical, particularly in the first act with some upbeat music numbers. A travelling theatre-troupe stop in and add colour to the dull life in Mukinupin and there is a hilarious enactment of the Death of Desdemona. The entire story is seems to be told by two sisters, whom add a tinge of comedy and even foreboding to the whole tale. They seem to know what is going to happen and sometimes even direct the events. They are not quite real, and a little like two witches, but not.
What is most fascinating about the play however is not the story or the happy ending at the end, but the use of the same actors to play both the twin parts. The twins never appear together. One appears in the day and the other at night. Polly and Lilly, Eek and Zeek, Jack and Harry all represent the two sides of society – the supposedly respectable and the underbelly malcontents. Presenting thesis and anti-thesis; Jack is the ‘clean nice guy’, Harry a rogue and drunk; Polly the pretty perfect young damsel, while Lily the debauched, polluted, lustful half-caste; Eek the upstanding citizen of the town while Zeek the slightly eccentric vagabond roaming the town looking for metals and rain. The craft of the performers is undeniable. Both roles of each actor are well etched and markedly different. For a while one was actually quite convinced that there were actually two actors, particularly in the case of the Tuesday brothers.
However while the plot ambles along and is a bit random at times, the staging and music really made this a worthwhile experience. The two instrumentalists flitted between piano, organ, bass, musical saw, etc, adding to the eerie atmosphere.
Being someone who works in production the coup-de-grace for me was the live fireplace at upstage centre. I spent most of the show trying to figure out how it was done. And how for the more dramatic scenes the fire roared higher and for the under stated scenes it glowed as embers. The entire upstage was covered with the sand of the desert and a mobile home was placed upstage left. The mobile home became people’s houses or even the “backstage” when a group of players come to town.
The performers were competent. The singing was strong, and the random recitations of the deaf grocer’s wife were quite spell-binding. All in all one is left with a slightly macabre, slightly absurd view of the world, and while you may not love the play, it will certainly leave you uneasy. Perhaps with play is a little too long, but all said and done it was quite a feast for the senses.
After the show I left for dinner, not fully sure if I got all the nuances of the story or what it means to the Australian people. The horror of the secret and the deplorable way people treat Lily, for me was unsettling to say the least. Reminded me why I love the Belvoir Street Theatre.