BLACK DIGGERS, Sydney Festival and QTC at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 18-26 January 2014. Photography by Jamie Williams.
Late in this exceptional new Australian play by Tom Wright, directed by Wesley Enoch, one of the Diggers tells of his experiences in Flanders and of the shrapnel still in his body. He explains how gradually and inevitably it comes to the surface - with more or less bloody results - and how the same is still happening all over Europe on the battlefields of The Great War. "The bits left behind always work their way out," he says matter-of-factly.
Given the stories played out on stage to that point this oblique revelation is sudden and shocking. The black diggers - non-citizen, non-person Aborigines who joined up to fight for king and country - are only now rising to the surface of public consciousness. And it's taken one hundred years for it to happen and for these long forgotten everyday heroes to begin to take their place in Australian history.
The complex yet clear structure of Black Diggers comes from Wright's long experience and success as a playwright and it makes absorbing and emotionally muscular theatre. Short scenes and evocative vignettes hitherto associated with white Australia introduce multiple characters. And a non-linear time frame begins in rural Australia before the outbreak of WW1, takes us with the young soldiers across Europe to end with the returned men and the ghosts of those who did not. The men who helped win the war but did not win the battle back home.
For some, on its world premiere opening night, the fragmentary nature of the narrative was a little problematic and a desire was expressed for stronger individual characters and stories. In other words, a more conventional drama with a simpler structure and archetypal characters. If that had been the case, however, it would have resembled any number of (fine) predecessors from Gallipoli through to Beneath Hill 60 - character-driven movies that told of Australians at war.
In a recent interview in the Sydney Morning Herald Tom Wright said of the way the stories are told: "If you focus on just two or three narratives, you're already misrepresenting history." What he was aiming for was the tradition of "pageant story telling" or "Brechtian, big picture stories", and "…short, sharp scenes to get a scatter-gun, almost shell-shocked impression of the war."
The point of Black Diggers then is that the men we meet so vividly are represented as they have been by history and their homeland: fleetingly, anonymously, in passing, quickly discarded and easily forgotten. They found themselves marooned on the other side of the world, in unknown and unfamiliar country, for unfathomable reasons. In these places the sun barely shines, there is no warmth, the night is neither dark nor comforting (lighting Ben Hughes).
On the rough blank walls of Stephen Curtis's brutal, bunker-like set names are casually whitewashed by cast members: Nigel, Fred, Ypres, Bullecourt, Pozieres, Fromelles - the killing fields are indelible, the names of those killed are not. Shell shock - PTSD - is a given in this war and in these stories where the troops sing, eat, reminisce, write home and live in constant fear and filth while defending their seven feet of progress across the ruined meadows. There is no point to any of it except camaraderie and pride; the futility is unspoken but hangs stinking in the air as men live and die, cry for their mothers and commit acts of unimaginable bravery.
Then the Diggers come home - well, some do - and as one comments, "They painted my colour back on the day I got off that boat." Ultimately it becomes dazzlingly, enthrallingly clear that this is the play we had to have. It's driven home by the disembodied but unmistakable voice of PJ Keating describing the Unknown Indigenous Soldier - and as such, it's as fine a work as those veterans deserve.
Years of research and painstaking consultation with veterans' families bring to life the times and travails of the young men who went to fight. Black Diggers is a brilliant evocation of trench warfare and the race politics of Australia, performed by an ensemble cast. In A-Z order - Luke Carroll, George Bostock, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, Guy Simon, Colin Smith, Eliah Watego, Meyne Wyatt and Tibian Wyles. Their ease with the material is uneven at the moment, some are more experienced than others, but there's no escaping the power and commitment each brings to the 100 minutes straight through, with barely a pause for breath.
Bring tissues, bring your heart and an open and loving mind and be prepared for one of the best nights in the theatre you could wish for. The brightest highlight of the 2014 Sydney Festival for me, to date.