Story Lines | Bondi Pavilion Theatre

Story Lines is a joint venture between Bakehouse Theatre Company, Tamarama Rock Surfers and NIDA, staged at Parade Theatres’ Playhouse (and which, by the time you likely read this, will have migrated to Bondi Pavilion).

“The aim is simple: to open a dialogue; to learn; to listen to one another’s stories, one story at a time; to follow the Story Lines to a place where they meet.” Well, it may be simple, to say nothing of well-intentioned and even noble, but it’s also highly ambitious. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, so long as that ambition is substantially realised. But that stated aim, while met with very worthwhile work in its own right, intimates a comprehensiveness, wholism, cohesiveness and convergence which is, at best, really only marginally present.

In fact, this isn’t really a festival, but a grab-bag handful of visual and performing arts with roots in, or connections to, multicultural and related themes, centred around three plays by Justin Fleming, ‘art installations’ (I don’t recall seeing anything other than framed and hung photographs, drawings and paintings), some underwhelming breakdancing from Afro-Indigenous dance squad, The Saints, choreographed by Cheyne Finn, impressively original didgeridoo stylings from Anthony Treacy, tireless djembe solo by the perpetually smiling Sibo Bangoura,  a few deeply moving and becalming ballads from Chris Edwards-Haines and relatively poor singing of covers, with piano accompaniment.

In other words, it’s all a bit amateurish (well, much of it) and all the political correctness in the world doesn’t excuse such. Or, at least, the amateur components aren’t of a high enough standard to intermingle with the more professional ones, without dragging the whole down.

On the plus side, it’s encouraging to see and hear other than Caucasian voices and the festival, such as it is, does help raise awareness (if only obliquely) of indigenes (the Stolen Generations, in particular), refugees, as well as the African and Islamic communities. “Story Lines celebrates diversity, promotes cultural unity, and fosters a sense of identity and belonging,” is a motherhood statement. It talks the talk. But the festival only walks the walk to a limited extent. Beyond tokenism, but not nearly far enough beyond, I fear.

Similarly, its assertion that it’s a “landmark cultural event showcasing the stories of Sydney’s Malaysian, idigenous, Islamic and African refugee communities” is hyperbolic overstatement, since there’s nowhere near this level of specificity in evidence (the plays, especially, are characterised by all usion and metaphor, rather than head-on confrontation of issues). Yes, there are portraits of Aboriginal men who were and remain victims of the infamous Kinchela Boys’ Home; yes, there are paintings by same, as well as by a disparate and ill-defined group of refugees (as detainees, I’m told, the government prohibits use of their names, reducing them to the collective descriptor of the Refugee Art Project at Villawood Detention Centre), Natasha Narula, Stephen Floyd, Sandy Chockman, Allin Vartan-Boghossian and Shirley Hsu, all under the lofty banner of the Voices and Visions Art Exhibition, but with scant or no attention having been paid to lighting (many paintings were in almost complete darkness, if one happened upon them at all) or other fundamentals of ‘exhibitionism’. Yes, African refugee experience was interpolated into at least one of Fleming’s plays.

A more modest, realistic approach to marketing, such that experience more closely matches the claims, would be advisable from all standpoints, I would’ve thought. At the launch, for example, at least two programmed events seemed to be missing in action: the traditional Sudanese dancers and Ella Rubeli’s short film, Continental Drift, both of which I was awaiting with veritably bated breath. And where was the touted Islamic music (including oud) or composer and designer Martin Jamieson’s sound installation?

Curator and director Suzanne Miller has admitted the festival has grown out of personal contacts. And that’s just the trouble. While it makes for a good start and her coterie can, clearly, provide access to a range of diverting visual and performance art on its own, a ‘festival’, with the full-blown nature that term implies, begs for more intensive research and development; not of the kind that necessarily requires a budgetary shot-in-the-arm, but of the sort legwork, elbow grease and hard yards can yield. I’m the last person who wants to hurl brickbats at such an initiative which, in essence, meshes so seamlessly with my sociopolitical outlook; but there are questions of quality and integrity here.

The centrepieces of the festival seem unashamedly to be Fleming’s plays, two out of three of which I can discuss: A Land Beyond The River and Junction. The first utilises a familiar and ever-popular device; that of the play within the play. In this case, we have a culturally diverse group of students intensively rehearsing To Kill A Mockingbird, only to learn their director has resigned at the eleventh hour. It falls to them to collectively take on the mantle. Having interrogated her vision to cast black as white, white as black and otherwise go against type, they come to realise that, if honest with and true to themselves and each other, the best man or woman for the role, or job, may well entail things working out that way, regardless of any express deliberation, determination or affirmative action. It’s an elegant device, concisely expressed.

However, the net effect tends to be a little didactic and patronising, not least given the overly emphatic way in which the actors have, apparently, been directed to impart their lines. I say this because there’s a marked and striking difference between this exceedingly talented troupe of Aboriginal, African, Asian and Caucasian actors when performing Mockingbird, as opposed to when performing what amounts to Fleming’s preamble. Somewhat awkwardly and jarringly interwoven are refugee stories, based on interviews with three young Africans. While strong material on its own, it hasn’t really been integrated into the scenario described.

Mockingbird itself is at the heart of the play and heavily relied upon as such. And why not? It still stands as an incomparably eloquent dramatic treatise on prejudice and insidious, institutionalised discrimination, as well as its equally pernicious socialised cousin. In the Mockingbird roles, these young actors are nothing short of outstanding, while the play itself is good, rather than great. It might’ve transcended the former border more readily had it not fallen back on such intimate homage, if you will, to Mockingbird; if it had struck out more courageously and wholeheartedly on its own. But it’s exciting that it was specifically commissioned for the festival and this is its professional debut. Andrew Cutcliffe, Kir Deng, Cheyne Fynn, Aileen Huynh, Alex Jalloh, Joshua McElroy, Jasmin Simmons, Guy Simon and Elijah Williams are almost inseparably and insuperably good in their respective roles.

Junction deals with Aboriginal ideas about time, memory, ancestral spirits and respect with profound subtlety and panache. The only risk is the subtlety is likely to result in some viewers missing these themes entirely. But even if that’s the case, the play still stands as a very decent piece of work. A one-acter, like A Land Beyond (and also by Justin Fleming), it’s set in  derelict railway hut somewhere (and nowhere) in the lonely, windswept, foreboding, unforgiving outback, where two sets of tracks crisscross and two young lovers lob; he having discovered the location in deference to her penchant for visiting interesting  and, preferably, slightly dangerous places.

In one sense, it’s like the proverbial bluesman finding himself at the crossroads, choosing between the devil and the deep, blue sea; or, in this case, the wide, brown, empty land. In another it’s a metaphor for the desolation of the couple’s lives (and, by inference perhaps, our own), given their yearning for something other, outside and beyond. Night falls and ghosts appear. Whether figments of their imaginations or present manifestations of the past is almost immaterial: the interest lies in grappling alongside the stranded pair to reconcile past, present and future: can we expect much from either of the latter if we don’t acknowledge the former?

In any case, quite apart from the more significant impetus of the piece, if you like a good campfire ghost story, you’re bound to love Junction. Stacey Duckworth and Guy Simon feature and are excellent, even if Duckworth is a little too well-spoken to make she of her lines, written for a character of very loose grammatical habits, really credible. It’s something that should’ve been spotted and sorted, one way or another, by the director. Marty Jamieson’s sound design is haunting and Allin Vartan-Bhogossian’s set design transporting (no pun intended). Verity Hampson’s lighting is also suitably spooky.

Story Lines is a small-scale, haphazard, multicultural collaboration which holds the promise and shape of much better things to come. One day, it might even legitimately live up to the descriptor ‘festival’. I really hope so. Until then, while there’s nothing to really make you salivate, there’s plenty to whet your appetite. And it’s an ever-timely reminder to underscore our similarities and celebrate our differences.

The details: Story Lines double Junction and A Land Beyond was staged at NIDA’s Playhouse from July 31 to August 4. The show has moved to the Bondi Pavillion Theatre until August 17 — tickets on the company website.