The Visitors(The Play) – To Welcome or Repel

The Visitors, now at The Riverside Theatre, is a new production from award-winning Muruwari writer Jane Harrison. Her play first transfixed audiences at The Sydney Festival in 2020. Quandamooka director Wesley Enoch teams up once again with Harrison to create a masterful reimagining of the First Fleet’s arrival from a First Nations perspective. This contemporary version shows movement and inclusivity by welcoming two women characters into the role of leaders, whereas the previous play had an all-male cast playing elders. The use of the Dharug Dhalang language throughout the script lends authenticity to the discussions and is beautiful to hear.

The Moogahlin Performing Arts and The Sydney Theatre Company bring us back to a warm summer day in January 1788. A day that will impact the history of the Eora nation. Birds are chirping, waves are lapping. Elizabeth Gadsby designed the set so that the stage feels spacious, with mountains of shells piled on the ground and driftwood lying around. A colossal sandstone rock takes centre stage, creating a solid presence, with the gold of the stone glittering under the warm lighting. Six clan leaders and one man, an ersatz leader, gather on this escarpment at the ocean’s edge (which we now know as Sydney Cove,) looking out to sea and warily watching some fleet of giant nawi (ships) sail closer and closer. 

The Play

They have seen ships come before, but they have never stayed. This time, they are told that ships with many mobs are on the way. The leaders from different clans discuss how they will respond to the strangers. Shall they be welcomed ashore, or should they turn them away and, if necessary, engage in war? 

They must each present their reasons for their opinion and must make a unanimous decision. This becomes the underlying premise of The Visitors. 

With Gary chairing the meeting, the Elders take turns to speak. Each story is subtly complemented by soundscape changes, thanks to sound designer Brendan Boney. We hear stories about previous encounters with the people from the nawi as each elder presents an argument justifying their opinion. 

The conversations are done diplomatically, with one speaker meant to be talking at one time. However, in a vein similar to some current parliamentary meetings, when people become passionate about a stance, their voices become louder until others join in, and the meeting disintegrates into a noisy ruckus. This is not an easy decision. The audience learns there is an innate culture of welcoming people onto their land usually. They help others in need with the use of herbal medicines. However, the unknown intentions of the people on the nawi must be factored into consideration. 

Enoch has gathered a magnificent cast. A standout performance was given by Aaron Pedersen, playing Gordon, who delivered a strong emotional performance throughout, particularly in his final speech. Elaine Crombie (as Jaky), Dalara Williams (as Wallace), Kyle Morrison (as Joseph), Beau Dean Riley Smith (as Albert), Guy Simon (as Gary) and Joseph Wunujaka Althouse (as Lawrence) complete this stellar cast and worked together to create some comedic lines, breaking up the tensions during the discussions. They earned a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience on the night I attended.

The timing of the opening performance at The Riverside Theatre comes just after the result of The Voice Referendum, and we leave with an echo of pre-colonisation life and questions of how different things may have been if certain events in history had changed. Jane Harrison has lent her voice, in a form common to First Nation Australian peoples – as a storyteller to fully capture our attention.

The Visitors was a thought-provoking performance that will stay with the audience long after the lights dim.

“Visitors don’t stay; that’s why they’re called visitors” – Wallace.

This review also appears on It’s On The House, or checkout more reviews at Dark Stories Theatre Reviews.

Spread the word on your favourite platform!