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Festival Review: Black Diggers

Black Diggers. Photo by Branco Gaica, Adelaide Festival of Arts.

With a healthy dose of salty irony, Black Diggers depicts tales of the hundreds of Aboriginal soldiers who fought for Australia in World War I.

 

Black Diggers. Photo by Branco Gaica, Adelaide Festival of Arts.

Black Diggers. Photo by Branco Gaica, Adelaide Festival of Arts.

Presented by Adelaide Festival and Queensland Theatre Company
Reviewed 10 March 2015

A white-haired and moustachioed gentleman sits on a stage boxed with graffiti-scratched chalkboards. A wry smile on his face, he is shining shoes and eyeing the audience. The man is George Bostock, 4 RAR veteran of the Borneo and Vietnam wars, and here, actor and cultural consultant.

Director Wesley Enoch has brought in the big guns to tell these imperative stories, in the centenary year of the war to end all wars.

The sweet smell of burning native foliage greets our olfactory senses, but it is not coming from the lit 44-gallon drum on stage. Before the house lights are lowered, the Indigenous smoking ceremony is performed accompanied by voice and clap-sticks. It serves to remind that we are in the presence of ancient, storied people.

Written by Tom Wright with a healthy dose of salty irony, Black Diggers depicts tales of the hundreds of Aboriginal soldiers who fought for Australia in World War I. Vignettes of bravery and terror on the European battlefields, including Gallipoli, Passchendaele, Messines, and Pozières, juxtapose accounts of enlisting, and the returning reception for “darkies” and “coons”.

The cast of nine male Indigenous actors take on all roles: male, female, and all races, with the camaraderie of a long-serving military unit. Appalling, incomprehensible and distressing but plausible accounts are woven, some with recurring characters. Mentions of requirements to be “substantially European” and narrated experiences reveal our shameful history. Luke Carrol and Guy Simon give standout, commanding performances across various roles.

The technical aspects behind the show are as commendable. Stephen Curtis’ set design aids brilliantly in telling these stories, as does composer and sound designer Tony Brumpton’s military and era-inspired effects and tunes (snare drums, gun shots and hymns). Ben Hughes’ tight lighting design brings requisite drama and shock to war scenes, and poignancy to the well-delivered monologues.

A voice recording plays of the eulogy delivered by Prime Minister Paul Keating, at the funeral service of the Unknown Australian Soldier, 11 November 1993, as soldiers stand respectfully facing a cross. This, and a recounting of why Pte William Allan Irwin (SN792) was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, is particularly moving.

The state-centric references to locations written into this Adelaide Festival version add heart and connection. The listed Indigenous South Australian soldiers are authentic; I looked some up. One Private’s (publicly accessible) war record states he was discharged after only 17 days in service; found to be “unfit for service due to medical incapacity”. The reason stated, “Deficient Physique. Aboriginal Half-caste. Too Full blood for AIF.”

Set against a backdrop of imperial inequality, the only whitewashing is literal (of the set). Fear and heroism intermingle unsentimentally, as the futility of war meets tragic discrimination through a meticulous script in an authentic setting. Black Diggers is beautifully crafted, incredibly sad, and richly deserving of a 21-gun salute.

Lest We Forget.

Warning: Contains low-level coarse language, adult themes and smoking on stage.

Reviewed by Gordon Forester
Twitter: @GordonForester

Rating out of 5:  4

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, 58 Grote Street, Adelaide
Season:  10 – 14 March 2015
Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes (no interval)
Tickets: $30-$59
Bookings: Book through the Adelaide Festival online or through BASS online, phone 131 246 (booking fees apply)

 

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