Whitefella Yella Tree | Griffin Theatre Company

Image by Brett Boardman

There are many myths about the colonisation of Australia used to justify the invasion and genocide, to demand gratitude from First Nations people, and especially to erase the language, culture, and lives of First Nations people prior to colonisation. Writers like Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian Bruce Pascoe and plangermairreenner of the Ben Lomond people Jim Everett-puralia meenamatta have worked for decades to dispel some of the myths that persist today. This new play from Palawa playwright Dylan Van Den Berg takes up the task to rewrite the understanding of queerness amongst First Nations cultures.

Ty (Callan Purcell) and Neddy (Guy Simon) are messenger boys from the River Mob and Mountain Mob, respectively, and they meet once every moon at the yella tree to exchange information about the whitefellas who landed in the area recently. They’re typical teen boys, preoccupied with appearing brave and strong, making their mobs proud, but their playful chest-puffing becomes flirtatious as time passes and they get to know each other better. In the meantime, the whitefellas are only getting closer, bringing violence, disease, and famine, and one day they kidnap Neddy’s sister. His pursuit of her takes him closer to the whitefellas and their ways, drawing him further and further from his mob and Ty, who waits under the yella tree.

Van Den Berg’s coming of age story about young love set against the ominous background of early colonisation is a powerful exploration of identity, loyalty, and shame as learnt by Ty and Neddy. Written in contemporary language and performed in Gen Z appropriate costumes, Whitefella Yella Tree amplified the giddy, heart-pounding joy of Ty and Neddy’s burgeoning relationship in a manner akin to the global hit Heartstopper, while also making the horrors of colonisation even more insistent and accessible for audiences who cordon the violence off in the distant past. The characters and their intersecting lives were skilfully crafted as recognisable teens facing incredible hardship and navigating that with gripping, complex, and empathetic choices.

Co-directors Declan Greene and Amy Sole harnessed the sweet, silly energy of young love without losing sight of the much larger cultural context around the burgeoning relationship. The production’s movement between micro concerns of Ty and Neddy’s relationship and the macro concerns of colonisation were well-balanced, tense, and served to create a deep and rich narrative world on stage. The set design by Mason Browne imagined a place that incorporated the rolling hills of Neddy’s country with the ever-present water of Ty’s. The abstract central figure of the yella tree hung from the ceiling, dripping into a mossy indent in the ground. Raw wood mountain ranges encircled the stage, adding a particular kind of cool urban skatepark edge to the production’s aesthetics, which were backlit by Kelsey Lee and Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting design of saturated pinks, purples, blues, and golds. The lighting design was an active and dynamic aspect of the production as it was used to represent the passing of time with a circle of lights moving the moon around the yella tree and bright flashes of light used to represent violent confrontations with colonials like striking lightning. Steve Toulmin’s sonorous sound design and composition incorporated huge, booming and cracking noises like the Earth shifting and fracturing under the roots of the yella tree. For such a small performance space, the production design combined to generate an impressive sense of space stretching to the horizon and time expanding to celestial calendars, in the same way that Van Den Berg’s script brought the modern day in touch with ancient stories of creation.

Purcell and Simon were at their best in this performance. Purcell’s Ty is over-excited, bouncy, energetic but with a deep and noble pride as someone chosen by the Elders to carry on the River Mob knowledge. Simon’s Neddy is more stand-offish at first with an ego hiding insecurity, but he later shows his passionate, impulsive, adventurous side. The two have a flirty, flighty physicality that reveals much of the inner workings of their characters’ young minds as they veer between peacocking, comfort, and fear. Their clashes about varying notions of loyalty and their differing strategies for handling the whitefellas were heartbreakingly conveyed by Purcell and Simon, who gave genuine, vulnerable, and convincing voice to the two boys’ perspectives. Watching Neddy learning to be ashamed of his love for Ty was particularly painful to see as the hurt was reflected in Ty’s eyes.

The direction, design, script, and performances of Whitefella Yella Tree were masterfully orchestrated for a truely beautiful production with a powerful ability to deconstruct colonisation and its myths about First Nations people, culture, and love.

Whitefella Yella Tree is running at SBW Stables Theatre from August 19th – September 23rd

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