Audiences may be put off by the unusually long contemporary play, but the only thing noticeable about the length was that the seats got a little uncomfortable by the end; just gives the legs a stretch during the intervals and you’ll be right.
The three-act structure is necessitated by nature of the play: it’s a way to mark space, and most importantly, time. The opening act is set in 2001 Darwin, where our protagonist (and narrator), Russell has turned the family home into an art gallery by day and gay cabaret club by night. Being dark-skinned with white parents, this is where Russell begins his quest to find his identity through tracking down his biological father, for which he already has a list of suspects – three in fact.
In act two, Russell takes us back in time to 1963 where his newly wedded mother (Lois) and ‘father’ (Neville) arrive in Port Moresby, PNG, where Neville has been posted as a kiap (patrol officer), and stalwart of colonial bureaucracy.
Act three sees us back in Darwin in 1975, post- Cyclone Tracy, where the dust of the past is stirred back up and the ex-pats are all resettling back in Australia.
Set against the PNG war for independence, the play explores identity in the historical context of Australia’s involvement, with different aspects represented by his potential fathers: a budding politician, a bohemian artist, and a house boy.
Director Ian Lawson used the unconventional storytelling device of having Benhur Helwend not only act as protagonist and narrator but also all his potential fathers. Usually I am against this type of logistical-based casting as it seems an obvious producing decision to make the show cheaper to produce and tour, as well as short-changing the local acting community of work opportunities. However, in this case, it actually heightened the audience experience. As Russell outlined this convention at the start, we as an audience felt ‘in’ on the guise and simply accepted it without qualm.
Helwend handles this mammoth task of donning multiple hats with great charm and charisma, and manages to inject humour throughout what is an otherwise intense and unhappy journey. The only misgiving is that the narrator role, although engaging, was at times too sped-through to genuinely convey feeling through the role – perhaps it was directed to be detached and peppy to contrast with the weight of the themes. Or maybe it was just to get through the sheer amount of text within the play, for which some prudent trimming would benefit as the narration felt at times a little over-written.
Taking over the reins of Kathryn Marquet in the original production in Cairns, Lauren Jackson is well suited to the role of stifled ex-pat house wife Lois, and handles the huge character arc with ease and is a joy to watch.
Peter Norton, as Young Neville (and later Alistair, Russell’s gay partner), plays the conservative party-line man with a simple directness required of the role, while Steven Tandy as the older, even more forthright, rough, and outspoken, displays nuance of character (much like a mature wine) in this smaller role.
Ella Watson-Russell also rose to the challenge of multiple roles including bohemian Cleo, Dutch expat Tinneka van der Haar, and Aspasia, childhood friend turned reporter. Rounding out the cast was Suellen Maunder as Nanette, the meddling frenemy expat who turns up later in Darwin as Russell’s relief teacher. Maunder played the role you love to hate with great verocity.
The set (designed by Penny Challen), which consisted of the bare structure of a house, sans walls, accommodated the various locations with some minor changes to décor and furnishings, with Guy Webster’s nostalgic soundtrack taking us through the decades, complete with Nana Mouskouri and ABBA.
The language of Bastard Territory is very accessible and an easy ride for audiences not wanting to think too deeply about any symbolic meaning within the text, however, I imagine (and hope) that in years to come, there will be many scholarly essays searching for meaning and comparisons to Tennessee Williams, and Ibsen’s Nora.
Presented by Queensland Theatre Company and JUTE Theatre Company, Bastard Territory is a new Australian work exploring identity; of self and of country. A finalist for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award in 2012, it is a shame this new addition to the Australian cultural canon had such a short season – I do hope it makes a return.
Bastard Territory played at QTC’s Bille Brown Studio till April 16.