Water is a timely new work written by Jane Bodie, staged by Black Swan. Director Emily McLean characterises it as “a play about two urgent current issues, immigration and the environment, in the guise of a family kitchen-sink drama.” The bulk of the piece deals with a former Minister for Immigration who has retired to his increasingly parched beach-house located on what appears to be a slightly fantastic version of Christmas Island. Hoping to enjoy a family birthday, his daughters instead tear strips off him, while the partner of his left-wing, hippy daughter is an illegal immigrant from Africa.
Richard Maganga and Igor Sas in Water. Photo © Daniel J Grant
In act two, the detailed naturalistic set is stripped away to produce a sparser setting. Within pools of light on a plain wooden expanse, we follow the misfortunes of a pair of aged white Australians detained at New York’s Ellis Island following the tightening of US immigration policy. This is followed by a still more intimate scene, where a Pacific Island cane cutter informs the white daughter of his former employer that he is to be deported. Following Federation, Queensland’s practice of luring indentured black workers to the mainland is to be replaced by the White Australia policy.
Tragedies such as The Bacchae or King Lear are sometimes described as dramas about the end of the world, or at least a world. So it is in Water. There is indeed more than a whiff of King Lear here, with the two apparently ungrateful daughters resentful of their father and shocked to hear that not only is the legacy he passes on to them one of shame, but that the house on the mainland, as well as their childhood possessions, have been sold off. As with Chekhov’s tragi-comedy The Cherry Orchard, the intrusion of an axe in the closing scene (only heard in Chekhov) signals everything is about to be hacked down.
The level of ire and speechifying recriminations of which act one is comprised makes the work of Tennessee Williams look like light farce, and it is his style of naturalism-veering-into-melodrama (if not caricature) that the play most resembles. The action is firmly embedded in the Australian ethos and its politics, and the comfortable middle-class setting also makes comparison with David Williamson inevitable. Don’s Party (endless boozing leading to outrageous behaviour), Sanctuary (the oscillation of our sympathy between characters representative of left and right), and Travelling North (the Lear-esque fall of a patriarch and the late revolt of the mother) are all evoked.
The cast of Water. Photo © Daniel J Grant
Although the characters are drawn in broad strokes, act one rattles along at a good pace and the actors acquit themselves well. The set is wide and shallow, and this produces a significant staging problem when the climax of the first act takes the form of a monologue from our mistreated guest Yize. Actor Richard Maganga is left standing awkwardly caught behind a couch, acting mostly to his left where the others are, but then uncomfortably turning back to the right to address the youngest daughter. The realism of the set is therefore something of a distraction, even though the performances remain engaging.
Freed of these constraints, the two sketches that make up act two are more involving, with the audience brought in to a pool of despair which surrounds each vignette. Again, Maganga as the canecutter is slightly hampered by being cast as a character who talks in monologues, though given he is dressing down the almost absurdly naïve white daughter, this is perhaps understandable.
The most interesting elements of the play are its twinned metaphors of water and birds. Yize describes the boat on which he came over the sea as being accompanied by an entourage of birds, and the treatment of men as wounded birds in either a loving or a condescending way is a recurrent motif. The bird apocalypse and drying of the land serves as a metaphor for a breakdown in social and human practices. There seems little future here.
Richard Maganga and Emily Rose Brennan. Photo © Daniel J Grant
That said, the links between our three scenes are unclear and the play does not compare well with other poetic dramas on the collapse of humanist politics and the global environment, such as Caryl Churchill’s Far Away or Ben Ellis’ Falling Petals. There is moreover no shortage of works addressing the woeful treatment of immigrants, from the parliamentary exposé A Certain Maritime Incident, to the first person accounts in Through the Wire. Several of these also employed water as a symbol of journeying, life, and death, including Théâtre de Soleil’s The Last Caravan (Odyssey) and John Akomfrah’s superb filmic installation Vertigo Sea.
This is the first showing of Bodie’s play, so it is unfair to closely compare it to these precedents. Although Water’s web of linkages is underdeveloped, it is already provocative. One can only hope it may serve some small part in shaming the major political parties into discontinuing bipartisan support for practices repeatedly declared by the UN and other institutions as illegal and inhumane.