Set against a backdrop of an old tarpauline, a ring of old packing boxes and crates, jerry cans and metal drums are set around the tiny Belvoir Downstairs space. As items are bought on – a cardboard box, an iron, a chair, table cloth, blanket – we see the beginnings of a house emerge. It could be a stage anywhere, a makeshift space made from whatever is at hand, and it seems perfectly suited to the warmth and intimacy inherent in the space. The first scene – a clever and sly depiction of a pre-invasion culture – soon gives way to a heated and politically-charged vision of Christian missionaries in Aboriginal communities, and we are thrust into the middle of The Cake Man’s grist, its political and social backdrop writ large upon its face.
A co-production between Belvoir and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, The Cake Man was written by Robert J. Merritt in the 1970s, and was the first full-length play staged by the National Black Theatre in Redfern. In the intervening forty years, we are ashamed to realise perhaps how little has changed, how racism and intolerance is still ingrained in our way of thinking no matter how much we’d like to think to the contrary, and The Cake Man becomes a sly indigenous perspective on white paternalism.
It is, on one hand, the story of a man, Sweet William, who is perhaps driven to drink out of despair, desperate for a way to make his dreams a reality. His wife, Ruby, seeks solace in the Bible, while their son, Pumpkinhead, steals, and becomes a catalyst for the consternation of the local white citizens. Comprised of a series of extended scenes, each seemingly from the alternating point of view of William, Ruby or Pumpkinhead – and, on occasion, the mission inspector and manager – The Cake Man is essentially about storytelling, about wanting to tell a story; needing to tell your story, lest you and your people be misunderstood. But something happens to this, the story of Sweet William. I have no doubt that within the play as it is presented, there is a story of strength and resilience waiting to be told, the one Sweet William is desperate to tell us at the play’s end. But as it stands, I cannot help but think it is lost within the greater tragedy of the roots of personal and cultural despair. Perhaps this is the point, after all; the stories, like the people who tell them, are lost and buried under something far greater than they can break free of. This is not to say The Cake Man is powerless or devoid of power, because it isn’t. There is a robustness to it, a tenderness and a fierceness; it’s just that it’s not too often seen. When it is, it shines with a passion and a vitality that is hard to mistake for anything other than a defiant cry of identity.
The set and costumes, designed by Stephen Curtis, is simple and effective, encapsulates a time slightly removed from our own, but still close enough that it may as well still be ours. Lit by Jenny Vila with a warmth and a simplicity, the tiny Downstairs space is aptly filled, and sometimes feels too full, as the six actors never leave the space; instead, they sit around the periphery, becoming observers and or extra pairs of hands to hold candles or other items as required. Under Kyle J. Morrison’s direction, the play does at times seem to stretch time, scenes seem longer than they perhaps are. At 100 minutes, the play could perhaps be tighter, and lose none of its punch. The scene changes, effected by the cast, were swift and clever, and there is a simple ingenuity in many facets of the production.
In the program, we are told that The Cake Man was written and set in a “sort of limbo time for Aboriginal people, where citizenship [had been] achieved but the Australian dream was still light years away.” Those dreams are still dreamt now, by indigenous and non-indigenous people alike, and their unattainability is still as tantalising and as frustrating as ever. There is a generosity of spirit within The Cake Man, a bigness of heart and humanity – a refusal to give up – which is only slightly battered by the cruel realisation at the end of the play of how far we haven’t come in the forty-odd years since it was first produced. Stories like this, just as much as our own myths and legends, are important, because they allow us – audiences and theatre-makers, black and white alike – to look back at where we came from so that we may continue forwards in a more understanding way. Like The Secret River earlier in the year, it is in its own way a plea for bridges to be built, for understandings to be established, fostered and maintained, awareness to be grown into, so that we may both become stronger cultures for our having done so.
Theatre playlist: 33. The Taking Children Away, Cezary Skubiszewski