In Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife, race relations in Australia are placed front and centre, and we have nowhere to hide from its confrontations. 1893 is in some ways a long time ago, but in Aboriginal terms, especially, we can still think of the story as a contemporary one. The invasion is ongoing, and the carnage, although better disguised, still persists. The cruelty and brutality demonstrated in Purcell’s play is a necessary point of discussion for our nation. Turning abstract into flesh, we look into the face of horror, and any denial of responsibility is impossible. When Molly meets Yadaka, revelations are made about identity and how it is constructed or understood in Australia. We watch fanatic bigotry in action at its extremes and relate it to what we know to happen today, and can only react with despondence and anger.
It is a powerful piece of writing, unforgiving and unrelenting in its accusations, balanced by a sensitive incorporation of grace and compassion in its depictions. What Leticia Cáceres brings to the stage as director, is cuttingly honest but with a lucid rationality that prevents us from feeling alienated by its outrage. The relationship between Molly and Yadaka is a tricky one that goes through drastic transformations, and the production’s ability to portray it with authenticity, convincing at every point, is deeply impressive and the linchpin to its success. As actor, Purcell’s formidable presence is captivating, while Mark Coles Smith, as Yadaka, is equally compelling with a dynamic and empathetic approach that mesmerises. Tony Cogin and Benedict Hardie play a range of objectionable and revolting characters who are thoroughly disturbing. It must be said that their work is remarkably bold and brilliantly conceived.
A statement that promises redress is made at the play’s end. However, what it represents is not an optimistic prophecy. What we have instead, is a continuing process of struggle and suffering that generations of Aboriginal people are enduring. The Drover’s Wife wants us to look at the injustices of 1893 and recognise that although much has changed in over a hundred years, much of the same remains. A dominant foreign culture exists on this land that requires the subjugation of our native communities. European colonisation, at its very foundations, disallows any room for its oppressed to gain autonomy or sovereignty, unless we begin to acknowledge the need for a radical dismantling of systems. The damage may be severe, still we must believe that reparations are possible, and the urgency for them to occur cannot be overstated.