Sunday July 21, 2024
STOLEN
Review

STOLEN

By Diana Simmonds
June 16 2024

STOLEN, Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, 11 June-6 July 2024. Photography by Daniel Boud: above - Megan Wilding, Jarron Andy, Katanya Maynard, Stephanie Somerville, and Mathew Cooper; below - Andy, Cooper, Somerville, Wilding, and Maynard; below again - Megan Wilding

Jane Harrison’s haunting play Stolen was first produced in Melbourne in 1998 and in Sydney in 2005. For a new Australian play that’s often the sum total of its performance life. Yet since Stolen was first seen, school kids have studied it, and it has been re-staged and toured all over the country almost constantly. This production, directed with finesse and understanding by Ian Michael, demonstrates why.

The items stolen in the play are five Indigenous children – symbolic of the thousands of kids who were taken, by “the Welfare” from their families over the decades of Australia’s most egregious social policy. In this production, the setting itself is a child’s nightmare: shadowed, cavernous emptiness with a gigantic filing cabinet occupying one corner like a slumbering evil transformer. Across the stage from it is an equally colossal cast-iron bedstead of the kind associated with hospitals, boarding schools, orphanages, and in this instance, a “children’s home”. An environment less homelike would be hard to imagine: fine work from set designer Renee Mulder, lighting designer Trent Suidgeest, and a virtually orchestral soundscape by James Brown.

The kids are Ruby (Kartanya Maynard), who discovers that being chosen to go to a nice White couple for a weekend turns out to be unspeakably more than fish and chips and a souvenir dolly. Anne (Stephanie Somerville), is the pale-skinned one who endures the permanent torment of being not White enough or not Black enough for her changing circumstances. Jimmy (Jarron Andy) is the epitome of boyish naughtiness and fun, except, for a Black kid, such traits will end in tears and worse. Sandy (Mathew Cooper) would be a nerdy swot if his skin and social position were different, but instead, he is easily spotted as a potential victim of adult crimes.

STOLEN

Last, but definitely not least, Shirley (Megan Wilding) has agony where her heart should be because she was taken from her mother and, in turn, her own children were taken from her. Her joy at eventually finding a daughter and discovering she has grandchildren is almost unbearable.

Over its 85 rich and often raw minutes, Stolen immerses the audience in theatre of rare power and compassion. Catching up on the first Saturday matinee of its run, Stolen played to a full house of classic STC folk: mostly White, comfortably off, a lot of grey hair and balding heads, and – these days – a visible percentage of the younger. Aside from the occasional laughs and tentative responses to fourth-wall-breaking questions, a pin – if anyone had one – could have been heard when dropped.

The performances, particularly from the three girls (yes, they are girls), make their plight as shocking to absorb as is intended. Adult actors being kids can often be twee but not in this instance. At the same time, it’s a tribute to their professionalism that their lived experiences and family histories have not turned this into manipulative melodrama. Rather, the restraint and against-all-odds-and-likelihood expressions of hope and optimism make this iteration of Stolen utterly compelling.

STOLEN

The ending has been amended to include a recording of Kevin Rudd speaking in Parliament on 13 February 2008 when he said “Sorry” for all the above. This year’s Referendum says, however, that we have a long way to go before it means much. In the interim, a night out to Stolen will enhance your life. Recommended without reservation.

 

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