Playwright H. Lawrence Sumner makes his mainstage debut with veteran Neil Armfield in the director's chair
How does a family – and, indeed, a country – reckon with unresolved grief and wrongdoing? That’s the question at the heart of The Long Forgotten Dream, a new play by H Lawrence Sumner brought to life at the Sydney Opera House by leading Australian director Neil Armfield.
Simone (Jada Alberts) has spent two years traveling the world trying to find the sold-off bones of her slain great-grandfather, King Tulla. Finally successful, she has arranged to bring them home to rest on country. Her father Jeremiah (Wayne Blair), the eldest male member of the family, by custom should speak over the bones and welcome them home. But Jeremiah, a stubborn old bugger nursing deep wells of grief, refuses. He has his reasons.
Joining Simone in the quest to convince Jeremiah to perform the ceremony are Jeremiah’s sister Lizzie (Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a dazzling presence) and local pastor Henry Gilles (Justin Smith). Of course, their motivations are vastly different, and so are their perspectives: Gilles represents all the complicated reality of Australia’s history of colonisation, from the micro to macro (his family and Jeremiah’s has a long history); Lizzie just wants her brother, and their family by extension, to find some peace and healing.
Meanwhile, Gladys (Melissa Jaffer), a recently deceased 102-year-old woman, can’t seem to pass over to the other side. A spirit (Nicholas Brown) has brought her back to that same jetty Jeremiah walks late into the night; she too has unresolved business in this place, with these people.
Sumner’s play looks near-epic on the letterbox shaped stage at the Drama Theatre. Jacob Nash’s set design, with a billowing, earthy backdrop, reminds us that the earth we walk on is as alive as we are, and Mark Howett’s lighting passes sun and shadow over the action with sensitivity. William Barton, the production’s composer and musician, accompanies the play from a corner onstage; a one-man band of haunting memory.
It’s a strong cast feeling their way through new text. Blair’s Jeremiah rises from a grumble to a bellow, and the play charts its course against that growing storm, and Alberts is a tempering and opposing force as his determined daughter. Smith, whose range and talent seems to get sharper and more nuanced by the play, wears the face of white supremacy and its complexity here with nimble intelligence; his best scenes are against Lawford-Wolf as Lizzie, the charismatic, quippy, and caring sister of Jeremiah (you get a sense she props up the entire family).
While the ritual elements of the play are moving – the play’s climax is a striking, emotional series of images, the kind Armfield is known and admired for – the play itself never reaches the heights of that imagery, and there are some narrative tropes in Sumner’s script that feel tired. His use of misdirection to create and then conceal certain plot twists in the first act feels forced, and makes for meandering, low-seeming stakes until we know where we, and the characters in the story, really stand.
More concerning is the way the characters exist in relation to each other: Sumner’s women exist primarily to facilitate the emotional growth of the central male character. This lessens their impacts and their voices within the story – which becomes less collective, and more myopic, when their actions and feelings must revolve around Jeremiah.
The abuse of first nations Australians is consistently unresolved and unhealed. The damage from this is ongoing, traumatic, and often diminished by the white, colonising forces that remain in power here and abroad. Repatriation of bones and artefacts is just one part of this issue, but it’s a critical one that deserves more attention and more urgent action. One of the most striking moments of opening night was the moment the play spoke to someone with that same urgency. Onstage, a character tells a visiting academic that the bones of all their ancestors need to be brought home. From the seats at the Drama Theatre, someone started clicking their fingers in classic performance-art encouragement and endorsement. A call and response between art and reality in perfect agreement: bring them home.