宿 (stay) review – S Shakthidharan’s thematically ambitious and affecting new work

Co-presented by a Singaporean sound ensemble, the narrative concert follows Shakthidharan’s prize-winning Counting and Cracking

As a nation, are Australians mature enough to acknowledge past wrongs? Do we even possess the base metal of curiosity to engage across cultures, when our disparate understandings of space, time and country struggle in translation?

In 宿 (stay), a premiere work at Carriageworks for Sydney festival, two skeletons are found in a dried-up creek bed on a remote Queensland farm, drawing together three women who have never met. Written and directed by S Shakthidharan (Counting and Cracking), the production deploys live acting, music, dancing and singing blended with recorded music and performance on 10 high-definition vertically hung screens.

Dancer and actor Jasmin Sheppard, best known for playing the eponymous Patygerang as a member of the Bangarra Dance Theatre ensemble, brings her exquisite dancing repertoire to the role of Violet, whose Tagalaka ancestors have for some 75,000 years been custodians of the land where the skeletons were found. But Violet has now moved away.

Violet receives a call from an anglo-Maltese woman, Thwayya (Aimée Falzon), who faces the loss of her farm, and for whom “forever” means five generations of living on this country. A family document offers clues to the death and destruction that binds the women’s pasts, presenting a puzzle as complex as modern Australian identities while attesting to the racist hierarchical control that colonisers placed on Aboriginal and Chinese labour.

A third woman’s story is told via the large screens, as Tsuet-Cheng (Natalie Alexandra Tse) returns from Sydney to Singapore for “tomb sweeping day”, when families visit cemeteries to talk with ancestors. Between bursts of a Chinese plucked instrument called a guzheng, as well as flute, cello, drums, percussion and tabla, the on-screen banter between the musicians drops early hints about the familial links between the women.

Inspired by the stories and cultural ceremonies of some ensemble members, this narrative concert is thematically ambitious and emotionally affecting, particularly in Sheppard’s final scene doubling as an ancestor, Daisy, alongside actor, vocalist and guitar player Charles Wu as a 19th-century Chinese gold prospector, An Hoo.

Presented by Western Sydney company Kurinji and Singapore sound ensemble SAtheCollective, 宿 (stay) achieves so much in its 70 minutes, ranging across cultural genocide, remembrance, empathy and identity.

However, the large theatre space at times overwhelms Sheppard and Falzon on stage, speaking to each other from opposite ends, and their early interactions are stilted. This could be improved by bringing the two actors to the centre of the stage much earlier. A little more clarity is needed when the women switch roles, too.

The screens meanwhile are effective, particularly when depicting the high-rise Singapore tower blocks and the vast Tagalaka country, but too much is mediated by them. Perhaps the impracticalities of bringing Singaporean performers to Australia during the Covid-19 era necessitated an over-reliance on these large monitors, and limited the number of actors present on stage to three.

Yet the production finds its feet as it progresses, Sheppard and Falzon acknowledging common ground across space and time, even when their mutual past is bound by sinister, gut-wrenching act that is viscerally played out in the work’s denouement.

  • 宿 (stay) plays at Carriageworks until 16 January.

  • Mask-wearing is mandatory for all Carriageworks indoor venues, although patrons may take them off to eat and drink in the foyer only. One foyer bar is open, and lines are socially distanced. Double-vaccination status is checked at the door and a QR check in is also required. The show runs for 70 minutes, with no interval, and is in Bay 17, an indoor theatre, with capacity of 570. In line with current state regulations, the venue is able to seat patrons at 100% capacity.

Contributor

Steve Dow

The GuardianTramp

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