Inspired by the jury room drama Twelve Angry Men, Jane Harrison’s new play imagines those fateful days in January 1788 when the First Fleet entered Sydney Harbour. The seven surrounding clan leaders gather to hold a tense discussion about whether to welcome these visitors or turn them away before it’s too late.
Harrison’s script is clever in both subtle and theatrical ways from the quick-fire debates to how the characters “other” the visitors and their artefacts. The circumstances of a possibly dangerous, possibly friendly fleet looming on the horizon brings out complicated consideration of honour and duty to the land and to fellow human beings. It’s a script that speaks loudly to the prevailing narrative of the First Fleet’s arrival and the long and violent history that has lead up to Australia’s inhumane refugee and asylum seeker policies. On the eve of Australia Day and as the arrival of the replica Endeavour, funded by the Australian government to commemorate 250 years since Captain Cook’s invasion, draws closer, The Visitors is a pertinent and painful reminder of what colonialism brought to Indigenous communities.
Designer Lisa Mimmocchi constructs a forest of sorts with planks of wood hung from the ceiling casting shadows and creating nooks for characters to lurk in. Sound design from Phil Downing involved largely diegetic sound of birds calling, wind, and waves but with an added percussion to punctuate the dramatic moments. Costuming demonstrates how the production balances the signs and symbols of white and Aboriginal social systems with each Elder dressed in a three piece suit and carrying a weapon customary of their clan. Other aspects, including their names which are all Anglo-Saxon, are employed in equal measures of irony and authenticity.
The direction and performances carry the weight of Harrison’s powerful script well while capturing the even heavier implications of the real-world invasion. Damion Hunter as the brash warrior Gordon clashes spectacularly with the other leaders like the intellectual Albert (Colin Kinchela) and the contemplative Walter (Leroy Parsons). Walter, who initially disrupts the decision to shoo the visitors away, is complexly characterised as meek while also assured, even if the assurance is in his own ignorance. As an ensemble the performers are dynamic and shifting as the ripples of dissent flow through each in turn. They are men with immense responsibility for their clans, their ancestors, and their land so they must be sure to make the right decision.
The Visitors is more bitter than sweet from the perspective of Australia 250 years later but the production is full of generosity and integrity, deeply aware of its resonance as a counter-narrative in the contemporary colony.
The Visitors is running at Carriageworks from January 22nd – 26th as part of Sydney Festival