His work has toured sold-out theatres around the world, won numerous Helpmann Awards, and been named a State Finalist for Australian of the Year 2007. He also won a NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award for 25 years (and counting) of groundbreaking work.
Bennelong is an interpretation of the life of the first Aboriginal man to live amongst whites. He was captured in 1789 on the orders of Sydney’s first governor, Arthur Phillip, who wanted to build a relationship with the reluctant black inhabitants. He lived with Philip for six months and maintained close contact with him and other colonialists throughout his life, even writing to friends from England.
In the performance there’s a thought-provoking sequence with audio from a male voice asking a litany of questions; ‘Am I a victim? A survivor?’, and most hauntingly, ‘Do I resist the system, or try to work within it?’ Bennelong was a daring, ambitious man who tried to develop cache with the British at the same time as maintaining his Indigenous ties, but it was a gamble that didn’t pay off.
The production doesn’t shy away from the fact that Bennelong’s life ended in shame and despair. When Bennelong returned from three years in England he was no longer accepted in his Indigenous community and had also lost favour in the British colony.
The whole production was a dazzling spectacle, but for me the most moving part was a simple gesture. Rejected by a group of Aboriginal women, one of them places his British red coat over his shoulders and walks away, leaving him collapsed and crying.
He starts to rage and convulse, showing the growing effects of alcoholism on his mind and body, as the other dancers slowly, quietly build a big white house behind him, representing the house Phillip commissioned for Bennelong, in a beautiful twist of irony, to be built on the exact ground where the Opera House stands today.
The final scene shows the fourth wall going up, closing Bennelong in behind it, showing that he exchanged life in his community for a miserable demise in the colony.
When the cast came out for the curtain call I had tears streaming down my face. Beau Dean Riley Smith plays Bennelong, and when he came out he seemed distant and distracted, like he was still embodying his character. When the smiling cast took their first bow he didn’t seem to realise and stood staring out into the audience, vacant. It seemed to reinforce even more the isolation of Bennelong.
It’s a moving tribute to how dangerous it can be to live between two worlds.
Bennelong will be showing at Sydney Opera House until July 29th and then will tour Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne. Find tickets here.
If you can’t make it, it’ll be streamed live on their Facebook page from 8:55pm on July 6th.