THE RESIDENTS PICKS OF THE FRINGE 2016 - A MUST SEE - "Ian Michael invites you to listen in on the silenced stories of Australia."
Unless you have been living under a rock without your iPhone as of late you will know that the 2016 Fringe Festival is currently on in Wellington. That means more arts than you can shake a stick at! The NZ Fringe Festival started in 1990 when a group of performance makers came home from a trip to the mighty Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland and decided Wellington needed one also. Naturally, because Wellingtonians are get-shit-done types of people, we now have the Wellington Fringe Festival.
Last night I had the privilege of going to the Fringe Festival show 'HART' (She Said Theatre) at BATS theatre. I was interested in seeing HART because it has been getting rave reviews about the stories of a time where the worst possible things happened in Australia. Between the years 1900–1970, an unknown number of Indigenous Australian children were forcibly removed from their families. How can you ever make it right? And what happened to these children? Performer Ian Michael invites you to listen in on the silenced stories of Australia. HART examines this difficult and harrowing part of Indigenous Australia’s history from the perspectives of a range of survivors spanning three generations. Sombre, funny, uplifting and deeply sad, HART is a short, and perfectly formed play that tells you the history of the lucky country's dark underbelly and historical wrong-doings. It is a must see this Fringe Festival.
The play starts with Michael standing in a circle of while chalk with a lone chair, his back to the audience. As the play begins a deliberate and clever framing takes place. We hear the voices of radio and television presenters, politicians and commentators about the stolen generation. They speak without a connected body. They justifying and finally apologise for what happened. A white circle grows stronger and stronger, projected above Michael before the lights come up. From here the voice via which these deeply personal experiences are told is Michael's. We are with him on this journey.
Michael starts telling the narrative with all the enthusiasm and heart of a four year old child that is in love with his family. Michael has incredible energy, connecting with his audience. He uses the minimalist props to his advantage at every turn. For example, as he describes the wool shed where he, the child, used to play watching the men shear, he throws a hand of chalk in the air, which looks like the wool itself as it settles. We are immediately transported.
"Over time, Michael coats himself in chalk, making himself whiter and whiter."
From tales of the young taken from their parents to young men struggling to understand whether or not their parents truly loved them, Michael tells each story with an honest and moving sense of urgency. He changes personality swiftly and silently, one moment being a kid from the outback small town and the next to a jock and then next back to himself. Michael, who speaks out as himself towards the end of the play, notes the irony of being too light as a part aboriginal to play a dark skinned person as an actor, but too dark to be a light skinned person. Over time, he coats himself in chalk, making himself whiter and whiter.
As the stories go on, they blend into one another, layering, deliberately to confuse us. As Michael notes - these are confusing stories from a confused generation. This bold step of mixing narratives and leaving the audience to catch up shouldn't work. But somehow it does. The mixing acts as a delicate cocktail, blending the many, fractured emotions, than define a man. The harrowing sadness. The outward courage and popularity through sports. The blame. The guilt. The anger. The difficulty of moving away from the past. One of the most moving moments is where one of the characters reflects on his father's death. "He was my world. He still is" Michael says reminding us that the grief and pain do not end with someone's life.
"Short and bitter-sweet"
One of the strengths of the show is it's length. At only 50 minutes makes you feel compelled to grab take everything you can while you are there - it is short and bitter-sweet. The pace never lags. HART uses multimedia and real footage to bring us back to the real drama that these stories are not made-up - they actually happened. We see the faces of the men towards the end of the play. Their faces and their stories are finally connected to the narrative.
HART undoubtedly deals with very difficult subject matter. As a person of Australian heritage, it was sometimes deeply saddening to watch how much wrong had been done by the Government of Australia in the hope of 'civilising' indigenous Australians. It is a ugly part of Australia's national identity which can never be fully righted. It sits at a hard edge with the Aussie cliches of celebrating Australia Day. However, Michaels message equally applies in a modern New Zealand context. While we no longer have families being deliberately separated by the state without cause, there are still hidden biases and problems with the social welfare system and the justice system that break generations of people, who have never had a hope.
"HART may be a story of the worst of human kind, but it is one we all need to know."
HART may be a story of the worst of human kind but it is one we all need to know. He or she who does not know his or her history, as the saying goes, is doomed to repeat it. Michael fearlessly brings his own history to the fore and using a minimalistic black and while stage, breathes colour, character and hope into their stories - the stories that need to be heard.
8pm 20-24 Feb (60 min) - BOOKINGS: bats.co.nz TICKETS: $20/$15/$12
Concept & Performed by Ian Michael
Text by Ian Michael and Seanna van Helten
Directed by Penny Harpham
Produced by Anna Kennedy
Composition & Sound Design by Raya Slavin
Set & Costume Design by Casey-Scott Corless
Photography & Graphic Design by Gabi Briggs