This powerful immersive performance explores Indigenous mourning rituals inside a historic church
Redfern-based Moogahlin Performing Arts has been creating theatre by Aboriginal artists since 2007 and has this year joined with Blacktown Arts for a truly immersive performance at St Bartholomew’s church and cemetery. The church, built in 1841, is high on a hill overlooking Blacktown, with views all the way to the Sydney skyline. There’s no parking onsite, so a shuttle bus escorts audience members from the Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Centre.
Broken Glass (by Lily Shearer, Liza-Mare Syron, Andrea James, Aroha Groves and Katie Leslie) examines death and mourning in Indigenous cultures through a series of short scenes staged in and around the church buildings. It’s a piece of promenade theatre, which means the audience follows the performers around the site.
It opens with a fairly conventional scene: three Indigenous women have lost their grandmother and are holding a wake in her house (a small hall off to the side of the church has been decorated with old, well-loved furniture and plenty of knick-knacks).
They’re deep in mourning, and the audience are treated as fellow mourners. They’re offered tea, biscuits and a place to sit. The pain is already palpable, but the bickering and rivalry between the trio is very funny – there are debates over who will get what treasured possession, and eventually it turns out their grandmother’s bird (named Nathan, after Nathan Hindmarsh) has gone missing.
At the conclusion, we’re led by a ghostly young woman, desperately searching for shelter and something to eat, to the next performance space. It turns out this woman – whose story we learn much more of later on – is our guide for the performance.
The darkly funny second scene sees two morticians preparing a body for an open casket. We learn about how they stuff the mouth and dress the body to achieve the "natural look", we learn what Indigenous communities want for their passed elders, and we learn about the experience of working with dead bodies.
The work then takes a more abstract turn as we enter the church, which features an installation of stick burial mounds lit from below. There’s a wrenching and grief-filled dance led by Katie Leslie, and a vignette performed by Lily Shearer, surrounded by service booklets from the funerals for Indigenous people: some elders, others lost too soon.
The finale takes place in the cemetery itself, and it’s here where we’re told the story of an Indigenous woman largely forgotten by history. Broken Glass serves as a deeply affectionate tribute to this woman and others like her, bringing local ghosts back to life and affording them the dignity, celebration and respect they may not have received at the time.
The promenade set-up allows for the company to deftly handle shifts in tone and performance style while still connecting each chapter to the next. That’s not to say that it can be an easy piece for the four to perform: the styles are wildly different and the content is heavy and quite immediate. The acting might not be entirely consistent, but there’s a warmth that puts the audience immediately at ease, despite the unpredictability of the experience.
They gently explore how we manage this endpoint – and more significantly how Indigenous communities deal with this all-too-frequent, and sometimes tragic endpoint.
The work is completely informed by its various locations, and the physical and emotional proximity to those who have passed makes for an affecting experience. It could only work outside a traditional theatre space, but it still has strong connections with more traditional theatre practice.
Theatres are the natural domain of ghosts, at least as much as cemeteries: not only do performance spaces get to see life at its most vibrant, but the act of each performance brings characters back to life. And much like human life, when a performance has ended, it’s ended; only memories and spirits remain.