Visually spectacular and elaborate, the Black Swan State Theatre Company presents Hilary Bell’s newly commissioned The White Divers of Broome as part of the Perth International Arts Festival 2012. Fiercely exotic and populated with greed, loyalty, betrayal and the controversial history surrounding the White Australia Policy, this world premiere play is rich and compelling.
Boom-time Broome in 1912 provides a series of sweltering and beautiful scenes. The Pearl King, Pigott, contracts the cream of the British Navy – Webber, Sanders and Beasily – as part of the White Experiment to discover if white men can collect oyster shells as efficiently as cheap foreign labour. Portrayed vehemently by Yutaka Izumihara and Miyuki Lotz respectively, superstitious Nishi and desperate Yukiko threaten the project’s success.
While the time period may not appeal to everyone, the flood of character interaction through convoluted power plays and racial tension was enough to maintain audience interest. Kenneth Moraleda as the amusing tender Bin, Jo Morris as plucky Regina the Melbourne reporter, and Kylie Farmer as sweet Daisy, gave particularly exceptional performances.
Although Sean Hawkins as young diver Beasily blossomed during the second act, the brimming energy of the first act began to peter off towards the end of the performance. Ian Toyne as Pigott and Tom O’Sullivan as Sanders dominated and drove much of the first act, but their passions and those of the rest of the cast eased somewhat as the play drew to a close.
Bruce McKinven’s intricate set design and the movable stage is overwhelming; constructed as the inside of a ship’s hull, the stage changed hugely to represent everywhere from brothels and jetties to the ocean floor. Alicia Clements’ period appropriate costume design and the constant movement choreographed impeccably by Claudia Alessi both added to the already impressive visual.
Married harmoniously with Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design, the sand-covered set magically emanated rippling ocean water. Manoeuvrable hanging lights and fairy-lights gave the impression of stars, evening lights and phosphorescence in the unique underwater sequences. A more intense orange light echoed the blistering Broome sunlight. Electronic subtitles were used effectively against a dark background during exchanges between the Japanese couple.
During the aesthetically astounding diving scenes was when Ben Collins’ sound design stood out the most, with ominous, ethereal music and eerie internal breathing sound effects. Dialogue was intensely natural, as were the foreign accents coached by Jenny Davis. Infrequent coarse language was sparing and characteristic, with colloquial language and pearling terminology freely utilised to enhance the atmosphere.
Director Kate Cherry and Black Swan State Theatre Company have produced an enthralling and timeless show with The White Divers of Broome. The controversial history entices the audience, while the revolutionary set design and powerful character development bring a thrilling new dimension to the stage.