At the time of The Golden Age‘s original première in 1985, we talked about multiculturalism. Thirty one years on, that buzzword has evolved into the contemporary concern for diversity, and a real need for societies to address pervasive inequities, whether they be surreptitious or conspicuous. Since the middle of the previous century, we have seen the rise of political agitation, most significantly in the realms of race, gender and sexuality, that attempt to remedy the injustices of the world, to varying degrees of success.
In Louis Nowra’s play, two cultures collide, with one being an overwhelming and dominating force that instinctively requires anything contradictory to surrender, assimilate and conform. The other is a community of six people, a lost tribe descended from outcasts in the Tasmanian wilderness, admittedly rustic but undeniably peaceful. The idea of an Australian mainstream is explored bitingly by Nowra, who juxtaposes what we have come to think of as normal, against something quite literally extraordinary, to expose the systemic failings of the way we organise life, in the belief that our idea of civilisation is the only one legitimate and proper. The Golden Age reveals how we fight tooth and nail to hold up an ideal that is ultimately of service to no one, and that has an appetite for destruction so voracious that it causes devastation even unto itself.
We can interpret Nowra’s writing in a myriad ways, and apply his parable to any context of power imbalance, but its relevance to the immediate and pressing matter of Aboriginal lives in colonial Australia cannot be ignored. The subjugation of The Golden Age‘s lost tribe, in the name of protecting them, is a painful parallel to the many governmental initiatives that have transpired and continue to be devised, claiming to be in the best interest of our First Peoples. The way power disguises its self-serving objectives behind façades of charity and convenient slogans like “the greater good”, is scathingly deconstructed and laid bare in this production by director Kip Williams. This is highly complex theatre, yet Williams delivers nuance, clarity and power while retaining the poetic, and challenging, spirit of Nowra’s writing.
Williams’s show is profoundly hypnotic, coalesced with brilliant dramatic chemistry and an air of intriguing mystery so fierce that we are left still wanting more after its generous three-hour duration. The Golden Age works on all levels; entertaining, emotional, spiritual, intelligent and meaningful, it fulfils everything the theatregoer wishes to experience, and leaves an impressive political message that implicates every one of us. David Fleischer’s design brings beauty, both raw and refined, to the stage, along with surprisingly flexible spacial configurations that provide excellent variety for the many scene transitions. Sound and music by Max Lyandvert is the clandestine master manipulator of atmosphere and the author of the show’s sublime mythical dimension. He works with our imagination to take us to wondrous spaces never before encountered, but are viscerally familiar. The aesthetics of the production is dreamlike, simultaneously splendid and cruel, almost quintessentially Australian, but completely enchanting.
The cast is ethnically diverse, with several actors playing parts that are of different races to their own (an oddity for Australian theatre even though we are well into the 21st century). Ursula Yovich as Elizabeth Archer in particular, performs with great acerbity, her character’s increasingly oppressive European presence in the play. Yovich’s utterances of prejudicial statements resonate with startling potency, perhaps informed by the actor’s personal experiences as an Indigenous woman. The heart wrenching lead role Betsheb is played by Rarriwuy Hick, who provides a focused and strong centre to the piece. She balances Betsheb’s wildness with a natural warmth to deliver an endearing personality responsible for the show’s many poignant moments. Brandon McClelland is similarly likeable, creating a Francis that is agile and vibrant, with an emotional depth that makes relationships believable. He figures between both sides of the story’s cultural divide, and is convincing throughout.
The flaws in dominant ideologies stare at us straight in the face every day, but most of us accept them as par for the course. Along with that sense of resignation, many underprivileged lives are allowed to remain in disadvantage, injustice, and hardship. In The Golden Age, the powerful are with the assumption that alternatives will be detrimental to their personal lives, and the powerless suffer the consequences of being outsmarted and outnumbered. There are many occasions in Australia today that we think of the need for a revolution, but our majority is crippled with fear, and the minorities are left in sacrifice. Things can change, and they do change, but with each appearance of sensational work like this, our minds are enlightened and refreshed, and a new sense of urgency can be ignited.