In 1789 the French Revolution broke out in Paris. On the other side of the world Woollarawarre Bennelong, a man of the Eora people, was captured by order of Governor Arthur Phillip and brought to the embryonic settlement at Sydney Cove.
A kindly man, Philip hoped to find out about the native people of this new land he had brought his cargo of convicts to the year before. He befriended Bennelong, a quick learner, who became an interpreter and intermediary between his people and the English settlers. In 1792 Philip took him and another Aboriginal, Yemmerawanye, to London. They were dressed in the fashions of the day, went to the theatre and, it is said, found the English as fascinating as the English found them. Anecdotally, they met King George III.
Only Bennelong returned, however; Yemmerawanye died and was buried at Eltham, about 14 km southeast of London, and owing to ill-health Phillip did not return to Sydney either. Bennelong no longer had his protection and found himself ostracised by both his own people and the white population. He turned to drink, and died in 1813. Ironically, he was buried in the orchard of Australia’s first brewer, James Squire, who had cared for him.
The conflict within Bennelong, being Aboriginal in a white society, is still very much with us today, and is the touchstone for Bangarra director and choreographer Stephen Page’s powerful dancework Bennelong which is a highlight of the last week of the Adelaide Festival. It is not a straightforward narrative, but a sequence of scenes that sometimes reference historical events and sometimes ritual and myth.
A huge suspended ochre-coloured ring dominates the first scene and begins to smoke as the men enter on one side and the women on the other, forming circles, breaking, the men jumping high. The music builds to a wild chant as Bennelong is taken by four of the women and his body painting is wiped off. The ring lifts up from the stage.
Later men and women in modern dress enter, dancing aggressively, Bennelong and Phillip are together, a jolly sea shanty has everyone dancing, and when the scene moves to London, Haydn’s Surprise Symphony is the witty choice of music.
Poignantly, several Aborigines die, probably from smallpox; Bennelong himself survived, with scars.
Finally, Bennelong is left alone, lamenting, discarded by his people. Behind him as mirrored room is built. He enters it, and is enclosed by the fourth wall which is put in place. His portrait is projected on the wall for us to contemplate as he howls behind it.
Page’s choreography moves from Indigenous-inspired steps at the beginning through and amalgam to Indigenous and western styles, borne on the waves of Steve Francis’s score, which incorporates song, spoken verse, chant and an allusion to an Aboriginal song sung by Bennelong in London. Jacob Nash’s sets are hauntingly beautiful, Nick Schlieper lights the piece with great sensitivity and Jennifer Irwin’s costumes emphasis the changing circumstances of the character.
The whole cast dance with vigorous intensity, and Elma Kris is especially remarkable for the quiet passion she brings to her role as tribal elder and spirit of the earth. But the evening belongs, as it should, to Beau Dean Riley Smith. His Bennelong is commanding, dramatically compelling, and supremely well danced.
Bennelong was performed at the Dunstan Playhouse on Thursday, March 15.