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The Return

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. A man in a fur wrap skirt stands in the darkness atop a large mound, spotlights shining down on him, his back to the audience
    Photograph: Pia Johnson
  2. A man stands in darkness, pointing to the sky, as two people with clipboards write something down
    Photograph: Pia Johnson
  3. A man stands upon a dark mound, a wrapped package at his feet, as a woman looks on from the side, shovel in hand
    Photograph: Pia Johnson

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

In a story spanning 250 years, this production inspects the sordid history of displaying First Nations people's bodily remains

There are 206 bones in the human body – and The Return gives you at least that many “aha” moments, with plenty of extra humour to tickle your funny bone.

A masterfully written dark comedy penned by Torres Strait playwright John Harvey and performed by a thrilling ensemble of six First Nations actors, this powerful and provocative show is a memorable experience that captures the wobbly highwire between time and place to reveal the grotesque and unethical market for Aboriginal remains.

As the audience enter the theatre, we are greeted with Zoë Atkinson's set: a large black mound that glistens with fertility. In the foreground, a small fire flickers, circled by brown twigs. It burns brightly and the plumes of smoke waft gently upward. Birdsong and the sound of trickling water create a peaceful ambience that is energised by voice chants and clapsticks keeping rhythm in Jethro Woodward's soundscape. We are welcomed to this fertile Country. Waa (Crow) calls, and a baby is born.

A person in a white shirt and white gloves climbs the mound to remove the campfire, revealing a nest with three small eggs. The eggs symbolise the baby born, and the three timeframes and narratives that weave throughout The Return.

The first narrative revolves around The 'Museum of Origins', its role in trafficking stolen
artifacts, and the conflict between culture and capitalism. The show opens with the delivery of a box of human bones, a siren sounds, and we find ‘the Natives’ getting ready to perform. Jackson, played by Guy Simon, is removing fingerprints and polishing one of two low-rise plinths that bookend the stage. Without a trace of humanity, the plinths become
aspirational white.

Bush Mother: Torres Strait Islander (Ghenoa Gela), admires the fine physique of the
Warrior (Jimi Bani) as he dresses into a traditional TSI grass skirt and dharri (headdress); the Bush Mother: Aboriginal, performed by Angelica Lockyer, wears a possum skin cloak.

Another alarm sounds and the museum is open. Taking centre stage with the verve of a
circus ringmaster, the Curator (Laila Thaker) introduces “this comprehensive collection that
will redefine the museum experience.” On the plinths, ‘the Natives’ strike poses.

The second narrative reflects the startling experience of the Repatriation Officer (also Angelica Lockyer; the talented cast all play multiple roles). When a man wants to return 'Doris', a skull that his grandfather found on a field, he is conflicted about whether to go ahead with the return of the artifact. “We’re always getting the blame for everything,” the man (Damion Hunter) says. “I’m not gonna get in trouble, am I? I don’t want to be accused of anything.” He admires a bullet hole in the back of the skull that his grandad used to plug with his finger so that he could drink from it on special occasions like Australia Day.

The third narrative follows the journey of the Bone Collector (Jimi Bani), a man who uses his
knowledge of local culture to find a circle of scar trees that mark a burial site for the Murray River People. As his troupe of diggers prospect the soft ground of the shallow graves, a
soulful song of longing fills the theatre.

The interplay of sound and Paul Jackson's lighting design in The Return is outstanding, taking us from mesmerising beauty to shattering us as we sit frozen in our seats. The harsh white flash of the Photographer’s camera becomes gunshots fired at a family. The staccato light washes over the audience. It is blinding, so we must shut our eyes and feel the sound, feel the gunshot, over and over again.

This immersive experience, together with the warmth and humour of the cast, leads the
narrative. Along with the nuances of set and costume design, The Return is spellbinding.
Only after you’ve stepped away and felt the weight of the deeper story work its magic, can
you truly understand how your current prejudices and privileges have been groomed.

Can the repatriation of Ancestral remains bring this country closer to healing? Yes it can.

Written by
Monique Grbec


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