Art should challenge us to think of possibilities we could never imagine for ourselves; to think deeply about what it means to be human, and the society we live in. Jane Harrison’s play The Visitors – being restaged by Sydney Theatre Company after its 2020 premiere – achieves this with an audacious premise: as the first fleet ships sailed into Sydney, how did the First Nations clans decide how to respond? Do you send them away or do you welcome them? What is their motivation? Do they need your help or are they a danger? What can you teach them – and is there a possibility that you can learn from them?
On a set designed by Elizabeth Gadsby to evoke Sydney’s sandstone, the protagonists congregate from around the area to discuss the new arrivals before they land. We meet Gary (Guy Simon) of the Northern Parramatta River, Gordon (Luke Carroll) of Sydney Cove, Albert (Beau Dean Riley Smith) of the South Shore, Jacky (Elaine Crombie) of Manly Cove’s North Shore; Wallace (Dalara Williams) of the River, Joseph (Kyle Morrison) of the Headlands, and Lawrence (Joseph Wunujaka Althouse) of Botany Bay. Together – with dynamics that resemble a local land council meeting – they weigh up argument and counter-argument within the frameworks of cultural protocol, and consensus is elusive.
At its heart, The Visitors is about a culture built on interrelation, obligation and generosity, who can’t imagine anyone would want country that isn’t their own. The concepts of invasion, colonisation and dispossession are as alien as the culture of those on the ships about to land. How do you stay true to your own cultural values when faced with a force that doesn’t respect them?
Harrison sets her play within a muddied timeframe: it’s the eve of the arrival of the colonists but the costumes are deliberately contemporary, reminding us how ongoing these conversations are: conversations about Australia Day/Invasion Day/Survival Day; about longstanding demands to settle “unfinished business”; about the challenges of how we share this country. And while The Visitors is about that moment of invasion, it’s a provocation about our treatment of other visitors too: asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. The drama is set during a day of oppressive heat and thunderstorms, and the poignant end is an omen of what we know will follow: the inevitable and devastating impact of colonisation.
The material soars under the deft direction of Wesley Enoch, who understands the multiple layers of the script he is working with. As one of the most important First Nations creatives in the country, Enoch knows how to craft a story that leaves his audience contemplating the undercurrents long after they leave the theatre. What he delivers here is akin to the most powerful of his works, including his landmark 2014 production of Tom Wright’s Black Diggers.
It’s a packed ensemble cast, but there is enough space for each to shine. Of note are the heavy lifting done by Williams, Crombie’s comic timing and Morrison’s natural gravitas. Riley Smith brings to the play the physicality that made him one of the Bangarra Dance Theatre’s most valuable assets. But it is Carroll who comes into his own, as the narrative – which unfolds as one conversation – reaches its crescendo, as more ships arrive and disembarkation begins.
This production was co-produced by STC and Moogahlin, a First Nations performing arts company co-founded by Lily Shearer and Liza-Mare Syron. Delivered by a First Nations playwright, director and cast, it is powerful, authentic First Nations storytelling brought to a main stage.
The play has evolved since it was first performed at Sydney festival with an all-male cast, and the story is richer for the gender diversity. There is more First Nations language and more humour peppering the otherwise ominous subject matter – and while this production still has a few rough moments, the maturing of the material has given confidence to the performances.
There’s another current resonance to this work too. When The Visitors’ dates were set by STC, there would have been no inkling it would meet its audience in the midst of a national conversation about constitutional recognition and the First Nations voice to parliament; in fact, its final date is on the day of the referendum itself. This context adds deep significance to the many important questions posed – because while this is a story that focuses on a historic moment, its most potent questions are about the future.
For First Nations people, the questions are much less about what could have been different and much more about how we honour our cultural values and obligations in a dominant culture that doesn’t respect them, or us. The question for the non-Indigenous audience is urgent: how do you meet a Welcome to Country with the same generosity and respect for the land, and the people on it?
The Visitors runs at the Drama theatre, Sydney Opera House, until 14 October