Traditions rub up against change in this new Australian play about a family gathered on a tiny island in the Bass Strait for the mutton bird harvest
The Duncans have been harvesting muttonbirds (a traditional cultural practice) since the beginning of time. Every year, the family has shown up at Big Dog Island, off the coast of Tasmania, for the birding. The faces might change from year to year and generation to generation, but the Duncan clan are always there, and have always been there, without fail.
In Nathan Maynard’s play, which tracks the family through one year’s birding, this particular season is a momentous one. Ben (Kelton Pell) and Stella (Tammy Anderson), the heads of the family, arrive with an air of sadness; they know that their days at the island may soon come to an end. Their daughter Lou (Nazaree Dickerson) arrives for the first time in years, with her son Clay (James Slee) in tow; she’s subject to plenty of good-natured ribbing for her fancy Melbourne handbag. Most of the teasing comes from Auntie Marlene (Lisa Maza), the ‘fun auntie’ with a secret, and from Lou’s brother Ritchie (Luke Carroll), a jokester who is dead serious about taking charge of the practice one day – if his father will ever give it up.
Over the course of the season, family bonds will be tested and redefined, secrets will be revealed, and adolescent Clay will harvest his very first muttonbird.
Directed by Isaac Drandic, The Season – Maynard’s first play – is genuinely heart-warming but never cloying. Its understanding of the shape of family, from comfortable playfulness to unique pressure points, is insightful, and the characters are instantly likeable, drawn with compassion and affection. Pell and Anderson’s loving bond sets the tone for the play, and Dickerson, Maza, and Carroll follow suit. The best thing about the production is how connected the actors seem to be to each other; together they create a sense of shared history and well-worn comfort. Drandic has the characters move and work in similar ways, as though they’ve learned how to be in the world from each other. And when Trevor Jamieson joins the family onstage – in the dual role as Ben’s old rival and as a newly-minted Senior Ranger – he brings extra complexity, and a lot of levity.
Drandic’s production takes place on a long coastline (designed by Richard Roberts and dreamily lit by Rachel Burke), and sparingly incorporates stylised movement to transition between scenes or underscore a point. It feels every minute of its 100-minute running time, but this also means that the production never feels rushed: it can unfold at its own pace.
Maynard’s script is more driven by the push-and-pull of emotions than by rigorous plot construction, which lends the production both a pleasing romanticism and a nagging vagueness; there’s an underdeveloped plot-line for Stella that, if fleshed out, would add more depth and dramatic direction to the play, and some of the scenes still feel undercooked, some concepts underexplored. But there’s a pleasing motif that parallels the family’s journey to that of the birds, which works well, and it’s easy to forgive the production when it seems to meander away from a focused point, because it’s so pleasant to meander with the Duncans.
The Season, produced by Tasmania Performs, was staged for Sydney Festival earlier this year before making its way to Melbourne Festival. It’s exactly the kind of play that should be programmed in our festivals: it tells a story of the Aboriginal Tasmanian experience that rarely, if ever, has made its way over to the mainland via art. Touring this play ensures that one of theatre’s most enduring functions – to share experiences as a true cultural exchange – remains a vital part of our local festival culture.