Equally emotive and informative, The Basement Theatre’s latest offering presents the too often forgotten stories of Australia’s stolen generation.
Presented by She Said Theatre, HART opened Tuesday night to an eager full house. The one-man show is fronted by the extremely capable Ian Michael, who formed the text alongside Seanna van Helten. Michael’s involvement goes far beyond the usual, with the Noongar actor’s own experiences and personality being showcased. Australian curriculum features little Aboriginal history, thus it wasn’t until the 2008 ‘Sorry’ apology of previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that Michael was inspired and provoked to learn more about “the truth of colonisation and what Aboriginal people actually went through”. HART is the result of this research, and explores the heart-wrenching experiences of Indigenous Australians in the 20th Century. Through the testimonies of those who were forcibly removed from their families, the play sheds light on this often overlooked subject.
Towards the start of the performance, Michael breaks character to elaborate on HART’s content. An unconventional move, this gamble pays off, with his short speech adding to the intimacy of the show. HART is unique in that it is entirely verbatim, “every word that's said on stage came from one of these men”. In this introduction Michael explains that HART features four testimonies of victims of the stolen generation, and while at times these characters may be hard to differentiate from each other, that is okay. The actor refers to this “confusion” as an essential element of the play. Confusion is what defined these experiences, and thus is part of the story.
Michael’s guidance proves helpful, as the audience is then able to enjoy and digest the show without concerns of mistaken identities. Confusion is certainly a main theme to HART, with it both growing and dissipating throughout the show. Yet despite the disconnect of certain stories, the testimonies work together, as “these men were all taken away under the same policy and experienced/still experience dispossession, loss of family, identity/culture, love, childhood, life in institutions, trauma”.
This confusion component is aided by the clever set design of Chloe Greaves. Brilliantly simple, Michael performs his monologues within the confines of a flour circle. The testimonies of HART span over 75 years, thus it is primarily shared emotions that connect them. In this sense the stories are circular, as “there is no ending to the trauma of” them. The cream-coloured starch seemed to have its own energy throughout the show; appearing to me in multiple forms, predominantly as the identity struggle many modern Indigenous Australians face, and also as a physical portrayal of disappearing memories.
Alongside the emotional anguish of HART is the interesting inclusion of humour. Michael describes his rehearsal process as “an emotional roller coaster” - a cliché he acknowledges. In rehearsing such an intense history, the actor found it was “very easy” to express the testimonies through “pain, frustration, anger and deep emotions”. However, he quickly realised the audience would need “humour, warmth” to fully understand these men’s stories. Through this spectrum, the audience’s emotional response to HART is intensified.
Directed by Penny Harpham, HART has achieved earlier success at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and following its debut in Auckland, it is easy to assume it will achieve similar results here. HART is an honest and respectable portrayal of the ongoing struggles that Indigenous Australian’s face. Ian Michael’s “main hope” for his creation is that it reaches a wide audience who is able “to hear, feel, see, something that they might not have before”. With this simple request of acknowledgement and awareness, HART is asking for no more than it blatantly deserves.
[Header courtesy of Gabi Briggs]