Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
July 27, 2018

How do we heal when past traumas remain unresolved? How do we choose to respond to continuing injustice? These are the questions posed by H Lawrence Sumner’s latest play The Long Forgotten Dream, a moving, ambitious work which had its world premiere last night.

Wayne Blair and Jada Alberts. Photo © Heidrun Lohr

Deftly directed by Neil Armfield, The Long Forgotten Dream tells the knotty story of the Tucker family. Anthropology student Simone Tucker (a sensitive Jada Alberts) has returned to her father Jeremiah’s home having located the stolen remains of her great grandfather, King Tulla. Wanting to lay them to rest at their home in the Coorong, she is baffled to receive little blessing from Jeremiah. The reasons behind his reluctance are slowly revealed over the course of the play, unfurling the secret history of four generations of Tuckers.

Wayne Blair is a potent Jeremiah, a man who’s shut himself away and finds solace in the busywork of constructing model ships. In his 50s, his only line to the outside world is sister and sparring partner Lizzie, played by the brilliant Ningali Lawford-Wolf. But with his daughter’s return, Jeremiah finds himself having to fend off the competing demands of family and community. Simone wants him to speak at the burial of Tulla’s bones, a gesture important to her and, she thinks, to her father’s sense of closure. But Jeremiah dismisses the suggestion out of hand, wary of what he thinks are her generation’s superficial attempts to embrace their Indigeneity. Father and daughter speak to the play’s exploration of how we choose to address family history and trauma.

Wayne Blair and Justin Smith. Photo © Heidrun Lohr

Simone’s wish is further complicated by Father Gilles (a very funny Justin Smith), who is keen to use the burial and Jeremiah’s presence as a show of reconciliation, something for the town to pat itself on the back for. No stranger to these opportunistic advances, Jeremiah responds contemptuously. We soon find out how their families are entangled, as well as the ways in which Father Gilles continues to enact harm in the present by profiting off stolen land.

Part of the power of Sumner’s play is its ability to marry disparate tones, often in the same scene. Though the central story is one of violent dispossession and irreconcilable rifts, there’s ample room for humour and the joys of everyday life, embodied in the affectionate bickering of the Tuckers. The ghost of Gladys Dawson is another such example – it shouldn’t really work, but thanks to Sumner’s confident script and Melissa Jaffer’s supremely eloquent portrayal it does.

Melissa Jaffer, Ningali Lawford-Wolf and Jada Alberts. Photo © Heidrun Lohr

In order to leave this world for the next, Gladys must locate her true love’s heart. Her quest is yet another manifestation of Sumner’s interest in remains and their role in the reconciliation process. She soon becomes enmeshed in the Tucker family, grappling with similar hurts and bringing home the impact of intergenerational trauma. Just one of a handful of spectres that dog the stage, these come to represent those difficult truths Jeremiah must confront.

Though this is by no means a perfect play – the first half runs long and some characters are better conceived than others – it’s an affecting piece of theatre that’s been gorgeously realised by Armfield and his team. From Jacob Nash’s spare but beautiful set, to the evocative score that’s performed onstage by William Barton, The Long Forgotten Dream brims with life and the recognition that there is grace in the telling of difficult stories.


Sydney Theatre Company’s The Long Forgotten Dream is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 25

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine