The reverberations of decades of stolen children are felt in this revival of Jane Harrison’s landmark play
Jane Harrison’s Stolen is the National Theatre of Parramatta’s second production – and its first revival. First staged in 1998, it’s been brought home to Sydney’s west where, in 1814, the first Native Institution was established, for assimilating Indigenous Australians into the colony through religion, education and training. From the early 1900s, under the Government’s formalised ‘assimilation’ policy, thousands of children were forcibly removed from their homes and families, losing all contact with their relatives, community and cultural identity. Stolen is a deeply distressing portrait of this national disgrace, a still-open cross-cultural wound.
Helming this new production is choreographer Vicki Van Hout (Long Grass; Briwyant) Through a shifting, weaving series of vignettes with a thrumming soundscape (designed by Phil Downing, and featuring an unsettling repetition of the ‘Happy Little Vegemite’ jingle), we meet five characters affected by assimilation.
Shirley (Henrietta Baird), who lost her daughter and is trying to reconnect with her, is preparing to be a grandmother even though she was never really allowed to be a mother. Ann (Matilda Brown) was placed with a white family and never told about her Aboriginal heritage until her birth mother was dying. Jimmy (Matthew Cooper) is unable to find his mother again, despite his and her best efforts. Ruby (Berthalia Selina Reuben) represents the women the world forgets, abused and broken in servitude and violence. Sandy (Kerri Simpson) spends his life unsettled and displaced, a product of his mother’s rape by a white man.
Van Hout’s production is expansive, earthy, and generous. While Harrison’s script stipulates a row of beds to serve as the Children’s Home in which the story is ostensibly based, this Stolen breaks out of the room and into the world. A tree stands in one corner, its branches reaching out across the stage, somehow made more eerie by the fact it has been yarn-bombed with cheerful skeins of brightly coloured wool. Cardboard boxes, both whole and unformed, are strewn across the space. Nothing is real or permanent – the furniture can give out beneath you, or your belongings be stolen, at any moment.
One look at the stage (designed by Imogen Ross) and Stolen feels a step outside time, a perpetual reality – suggesting that the parliamentary apology hasn’t actually changed the root cause or soothed the effects of waves of stolen children. In her program note, Van Hout says that this unhinging from defined space is channelled through “unstable” Ruby, who centres the production with her quiet and her loss, and can access the Dreaming; Van Hout says that by following this through-line, her production is structured like a song cycle, a series of rhythmic explorations of stolen children and their legacy.
Between the soundscape, the disassembling and reassembling of boxes, playground-inspired choreography, and other quirks – the press and click of typewriter keys through monologues, a microphone descending from the ceiling – that rhythmic, songlike interpretation of each scene is apparent, but it’s also a lot to absorb before you even add in the dialogue and actors’ often stylised movements. The production sometimes feels overwhelmed with ideas, like it’s been brought out of the rehearsal room too early.
But when the production works, it really works. When Ann recounts her first time meeting her birth family and the conflict it caused with the white parents who adopted and raised her, something magical and poetic and deeply, perfectly uneasy happens. Ann walks into the audience, her monologue a chant, as a growing call and response begins with the other characters – they comment on her words, bolster her thoughts, lovingly call out her bred ignorance. Here, this production of Stolen is at its best: confronting, hurting, angry, honest.
Van Hout is a choreographer, a dancer and an artist, and in this production she seems to use every part of her experience to challenge us to listen and understand, and perhaps to feel the reverberations of stolen generations in this country like a fault line under our feet: dormant but throbbing; soothed but never really healed.