Lest we forget: Sydney Festival’s Black Diggers

Every so often a theatre production stands head and shoulders above everything else, a production that stands out as a landmark event because of its social and cultural significance, because of it’s bearing on the shaping of Australia’s national psyche. Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River was perhaps such a production. Now, a year later, Sydney Festival and Queensland Theatre Company, in association with the Balnaves Foundation, present Black Diggers, an ambitious and monumentally affecting production which shines a long-overdue light on the contribution of Aboriginal soldiers in the Great War.
Like The Secret River, Black Diggers comes at a time when we, as a nation, must face the past and learn from it, when we must acknowledge the contribution people have played in the shaping of the country we know today. Directed by Wesley Enoch, we follow the stories of several archetypal figures as they travel from their homelands to the battlefields of Gallipoli, the Middle East, and the Western Front. Far from being jingoistic or representative, the result is an engrossing, harrowing and emotionally charged one-hundred minutes of unavoidably powerful theatre that does not shy away from the ugly truths of war and its legacy.

Stephen Curtis’ set is an effective bunker-like structure, concrete-like walls covered in scratched graffiti fill out the Drama Theatre stage, while a collection of ladders, steps, chairs and planks of wood dot line the walls. To one side, a fire burns in a drum, an eternal flame. As the show progresses, white (chalk-based) paint is used to cover the walls in the locations, names and dates of conflicts in which the ‘black’ diggers fought, each written on top of the other, until it resembles a giant white gash across the rear of the stage. At the end, three men armed with wet cloths write through the white the simple three word plea to future generations: Lest we forget. As simple as it is, it is a remarkably affecting design, only compounded by the cast’s rapid changes in and out of Ruby Langton-Batty’s military uniforms and clothes of diverse other people, everything from mothers and wives and children, to the people they encountered abroad and back at home. Ben Hughes’ lighting and Tony Brumpton’s sound complete the picture, creating dynamic and shifting moods simply, effectively, and with great skill and dexterity.
With a cast of nine men, Enoch creates sixty short scenes broken into five parts, each a thematic reflection of the black diggers’ experience. Each part is comprised of a combination of letters, direct-audience address, stylised movement, and dramatic vignettes; in a way, it’s a kind of verbatim theatre, except it’s more than just that. It is perhaps the shell-shocked response to the theatre of war, a kaleidoscope of experiences drawn from first-hand accounts, family interviews, historical archival documents, scholarly analysis and personal interpretations. It is both human and epic, gestural and broadly accurate.
I cannot describe the production clearly enough without urging each and every one of you to see it and to be moved by it. The opening moments are harrowing, but there’s a theatrical kind of ingenuity to Enoch’s concept, to its dexterous execution by both cast and crew alike, to its after-effect and legacy that is hard to deny and avoid. Similar in mode to Nigel Jamieson’s Gallipoli (Sydney Theatre Company, 2008), it is urgent, poetic, and unashamedly and eloquently vocal in its depiction of events. It is perhaps ironic that in the early years of nationhood, the nation’s only truly equal opportunities employer was the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), as Gary Oakley says in the production’s program. The scenes depicting the induction of Aboriginal soldiers into the military are both amusing yet alarming for the reasons some soldiers were denied enrollment, many for simply being “insufficiently white.” Outside of the army, in their civilian life, many soldiers had been subjected to constant racial slurs and abuse; once in the trenches, any distinguishing trait such as race or skin colour vanished under layers of grime and mud and excrement, only to return once the soldiers themselves returned at the end of the war. These scenes at the end, as the unfortunate legacy of their involvement, are as shameful and embarrassing as they are enlightening. While some characters pull through, survive until the present day, many don’t, and the play is as much about them as it is about the survivors. It’s not a play about heroes or heroics, but about people, about a contribution, and a fight for its recognition.
To quote the promotional material, “Black Diggers asserts the black presence that needs to be acknowledged and seeks to place the indigenous soldier within Australia’s psyche. As the actors step from the blank pages of history to share these compelling stories, we will finally remember them. Lest we forget.” As the soldiers line the chamber once more, as the Eternal Flame burns on, and as the solitary bugler plays the Last Post, a great emotional wave broke across the theatre and three words written across the back wall of the stage seemed to burn with fire.
Lest we forget.

Theatre playlist: 4. The Last Post, Traditional

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