In sixty-odd years from around 1910, some quarter of a million Australian Aboriginal children were taken by the state from their families on the flimsiest of excuses – Stolen, as the title of Jane Harrison's play has it. Lighter-skinned children might hope to be adopted by white families, but fully 99% of such adoptions ended in breakdown; darker-skinned children were simply trained up for menial labour. Of the five cast members of Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-Operative's production, now running at London's Tricycle Theatre, three were themselves stolen; actor Pauline Whyman was one of twelve of her parents' fifteen children to be so taken away.
Harrison's play, under Wesley Enoch's direction, keeps the message to the fore without lapsing into polemic or agitprop. The five come onstage, carrying suitcases; they peer around Richard Roberts' set, with its vast symbolic fissure running across an institutional dormitory; they wonder where their mothers are; then various snapshots of what such victims might expect are played out. They might be claimed for weekend visits with supposed benefactors, which in fact gave free rein to abusers; they might be punished by the matron for even using Aboriginal words; they might simply be told that their mother was dead, while all the time her letters and presents were simply thrown away by the authorities. The "lucky" ones might be so "cherished" by their adoptive parents that any attempt to rediscover their true heritage and families would be seen not simply as callous ingratitude but somehow as a betrayal of the white society which so, er, generously assimilated them. Others might be driven by the stresses of the system to drink, crime, mental illness or suicide, as the fracture persisted not just through the childhood but through the entire lives of the Stolen Generations.
Straightforward portrayals merge with more impressionistic episodes. Occasionally the sentimentality is overplayed, as when a mother, wound up with anticipation, dies of a heart attack on the eve of reunion with her son after over 20 years. But the underlying truth is incontestable and harrowing. After the 80 minutes of the play proper, each of the cast gives a brief, unscripted, personal testimony of their own or their family's experiences of this enormity. As Whyman noted sardonically at the performance I saw, no Australian Prime Minister has ever "been available" to see the show during its eight-year lifetime, so, since John Howard was also in London at the time, she might just nip down to Parliament to see him instead. After his government's formal acknowledgement of and apology for this barbaric programme in May this year, Mr Howard would be well advised to clear an evening of his schedule for Ilbijerri. Like the best of Jeremy Weller's Grassmarket project work, this is not theatre so much as real life on a stage.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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