22 September 2009

One Night the Moon

One Night the Moon
Malthouse Theatre
16 September 2009
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

Yesterday I read a Facebook status that said “one night the moon sucked the big one’. It’s not quite the phrase I’d use (in print), but you can’t deny its honesty or the passion and disappointment behind its expression. This show bored the bejesus out of my FB friend and her spontaneous review may be more honest than any of those written by us who willingly give our wordy opinions.

I had been looking forward to One Night the Moon, Malthouse’s stage adaption of the 2001 musically told film. It isn’t a perfect film, but its na├»ve charm, fable-like story and gut-wrenching sense of despair make it memorable.

In 1932, a young girl disappears from her settler homestead. Her distraught parents reject the help of the ‘blackfella’ tracker and Dad organises a grid search with his fellow settlers, while Mum eventually (and secretly) seeks the tracker’s help.

Director Wesley Enoch and his team naturally wanted to re-tell this story for the theatre and they created a world far removed from the screen world. The beautiful opening, with a smoking ceremony, shadow puppets and a how-cool-was-that burning of painting whetted our anticipation for something amazing.

There were some lovely moments, but it didn’t capture the heart or emotion of the film. In their determination to tell the story differently, this version loses the story.

It’s a story about loss and grief that destroys the lives of those left behind. As an audience, we didn’t have the option to fully experience that loss, because we were never given a sense of Emily, the child who goes missing.

“One night the moon came a wandering by”: this gentle lyrical lullaby by Paul Kelly is still in my head from seeing the film eight years ago. With daughter, mother and father singing it together, it established the heart of the story and set the audience up for the loss. On stage, this song accompanied the stunning opening – which was wonderful – but it denied us a sense of Emily. She was sung by an offstage and clearly adult voice and her only presence was a tiny shadow silhouette. We didn’t see the love between the parents and their child. Of course, we can assume it (and their reactions let us imply that they loved her), but we also know there are stories of parents who don’t love their children or of children who run away for good reason. On a more basic story-telling level, without a sense of Emily at the beginning, the audience can never believe that she will return. The telling of this story needs that hope or there is no story to tell. And a pillow wrapped in a blanket does not create an illusion of a child; all it does is distract.

Emily is the heart of the story, and its soul is the land. The emotionally honest songs of Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody scream the importance of place, land and space: “This land is mine/This land is me” (which was ironically sung inside). On the empty stage, I felt no sense of space, of heat, cold, land, danger, home or comfort – or any differentiation between the settler’s ‘owned’ land or the tracker's land.

So, again, I’m looking at Anna Cordingley’s design. Yes, it is remarkably beautiful. Yes, it is intelligent. Yes, it shows that she has an original and unique vision. But, again, it distracts from the story and its telling. Even someone as strong as Mark Seymour belting out an anguished song is diminished by a projection of giant hands playing with sand – with the added distraction of wanting to watch the person sculpting the sand. And there are famous paintings. If I hadn’t read the program (with all its explanations), I wouldn’t have had a clue that some of the visuals were from famous paintings of the Grampians (or even that the story had been moved to the Grampians). So, how did they help tell the story? They confused me about where we were and where lost Emily was, and they reinforced an artificial sense of land and space.

One Night the Moon is an Australian story. It’s our story. Our stories know that the white invasion of this country caused unimaginable suffering. We know that white pricks were vile to the Indigenous owners of our county – and still are. But we can tell a much better story than white guy bad/black guy good. We can tell gutsy stories about complex people.

The settler’s child is missing. Given his knowledge and his experience, he makes the best decision he possibly can and organises the grid search. Sure, he is a racist bastard, but racism is ignorance and fear and, as humans, we know that we are scared of things we don’t understand. He doesn’t refuse the tracker’s help because the guy is black. He refuses his help because he believes he is doing the best thing possible to find his child.

If faced with the same situation, I’m sure that many of us would make that same decision today. It’s not such a black and white issue.

Oh, and yeah – I too was bored and disappointed.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com.
Photo by Jeff Busby

Mark Seymour wrote a terrific essay about playing Jim. I so wish I had seen all of this thought and opinion on the stage.

It's not directly relevant, but here's someone else who also sculpts sand.

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