Black Cockatoo review

Theatre
Recommended
3 out of 5 stars
Black Cockatoo Ensemble Theatre 2020 supplied
Photograph: Prudence Upton

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Discover the rarely-told story of Australia’s first Indigenous sporting hero in this Sydney Festival show

Most Australians – even most Australian cricket fans – couldn’t tell you anything about Johnny Mullagh, the Jardwadjali cricketer who led a team of Aboriginal players on a tour of England in 1868. That group became the first organised sports team from Australia to tour internationally, and the result wasn’t too shabby: they won as many matches as they lost and many were a draw. Mullagh was a talented all-rounder (even donning the wicket keeping gloves from time to time to great success) and the team’s most valuable player, now recognised as Australia’s first Indigenous sporting hero.

Despite the enormity of his achievement, Mullagh is no Bradman. There’s no museum named after him, even though his life story would likely make for a much more interesting exhibition given the cultural and political clashes he found himself embroiled in. But is it really any surprise to learn that Australia conveniently forgot to celebrate an Indigenous man’s successes?

Playwright Geoffrey Atherden has opted to tell Mullagh’s story in Black Cockatoo, a new play premiering at Ensemble Theatre as part of Sydney Festival. As much as recounting and celebrating this story, Atherden is questioning how we construct our history; what facts we decide are pertinent, and which are better forgotten.

Our guide is the perpetually charming Luke Carroll, who plays a curator working deep in the archives of a museum which tells Mullagh’s story. He shares some of the most treasured objects held in the archives before a group of Aboriginal activists break into the centre to protest the rose-tinted lenses through which the exhibition sees Mullagh’s time in England. From those archives, director Wesley Enoch brings Mullagh’s story to life, with the protestors stepping into a variety of roles to tell the truth of how he was actually treated.

When we first meet Mullagh (Aaron McGrath), he’s just started his own protest, having been ordered to have his lunch in the kitchen by a group of white players who refused to dine with him. He’s tenacious and angry and ready to see what could be so bad about England that so many people have left to take over his country. But the trip that he was promised is not exactly what he ends up experiencing, and Mullagh and his teammates find themselves exploited by pretty much everybody they come in contact with, including the coach (Colin Smith) who brought the players over the England, but is just as keen to exhibit them as curiosities from the other side of the world as he is to support their sporting endeavours.

Enoch expertly handles the various worlds in which this play exists – England and Australia in the 1800s, and protests over his legacy in the 2010s – and puts his cast through their paces in a wide variety of black and white roles. They prove themselves to be wonderful chameleons, with stand-out work from Chenoa Deemal, as an English woman who takes an interest in Mullagh, and Joseph Althouse, as a range of toffee-nosed Brits. Aaron McGrath is a centring presence as Mullagh and along with Carroll keeps the story well on track.

As inventive as Enoch’s production is, the various threads of Atherden’s script don’t always weave together as neatly as you might hope. And while the protest throws up some pertinent questions as a framing device, the specifics of the actions seem like a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, this is a moving tribute to somebody whose story should be known by many more Australians. And a gentle but important provocation for its audience to consider why their own understanding of our history could be so limited.

Details

Users say

0 comments