THE PROGRAM CELEBRATES SOME OF OUR GREAT BATTLES FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
our gaze wouldn’t be directed away from the concert stage.
Instead — although the show was performed continuously on the night it was filmed — we cut away repeatedly to archival footage carried by his narration. A natural storyteller, Keneally calls this backgrounding to the staged speeches the show’s ‘‘ connective tissue’’ and, indeed, much of it is well-expressed, his narration colourful and vigorous. ‘‘ Doing it [live] in one hit before an enthusiastic audience was a stimulating and terrifying experience, but it was great to meet some of the younger actors whom I didn’t know, but whose performances fit the chosen outcries of Australia superbly,’’ Keneally tells First Watch.
The final cut meanders a little, especially when the less skilful readers appear to lack confidence in the characters whose words they are reading. Some are simply better sight readers than others, able to play the crowd at the same time as they recite the words. (Keneally does this with a practised public speaker’s grace.) Some have learned their parts; others simply read — sometimes nervously — in front of the live audience.
But there are some stunning performances too. Claudia Karvan does a witty, satiric version of Germaine Greer, reading from 1970’s The Female Eunuch and getting the scornfulness just right. Rebecca Gibney, having learned the words, simply inhabits Joyce Golgerth, one of the founders of the anticonscription group Save Our Sons, where mothers joined together to voice their opposition to the conscription of their sons for the war in Vietnam. It’s a beautiful moment, acted with dignity and passion. It’s followed by John Schumann’s I Was Only 19 in a rendition by Julia Stone and her band that is not only poignant but heartbreaking, especially when Kelton Pell gives us the great Burnum Burnum speech, delivered when he planted the Aboriginal flag beneath the white cliffs of Dover on January 26, 1988, the year of white Australia’s Bicentenary. ‘‘ I, Burnum Burnum of the Wurundjeri Tribe, do hereby take possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal Crown of Australia,’’ he snaps out, proud and full of larrikin bravado. Lillian Crombie follows with a gravely impressive speech from Lowitja O’Donoghue. ‘‘ For indigenous people the land she lifts her trumpet and plaintive notes at the end.
John Jarratt, like Gibney in character and using no script, is also effective with a heartbreaking speech from Chris Lambert lamenting the loss of his son on August 22 last year, when his patrol triggered an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
The final, largely indigenous segment is a triumph, a bracing spectacle in which history is celebrated by artists of tremendous craft.
of does not belong to us, we belong to the land,’’ she says, flanked by the impressive Pell and Jimi Bani, so charismatic as Eddie ‘‘ Koiki’’ Mabo in the ABC telemovie named after the father of native title. ‘‘ Our story is the land; it is written in those sacred places. My children will look after those places — it is the law.’’
As Keneally says: ‘‘ The Aboriginal speeches came from deep wells of anger and sorrow and bewilderment and irony and intent, and the young Aboriginal actors understood exactly where they came inhabited the text.’’
He returns just before the curtain. ‘‘ So you’ve heard all the voices — those you agree with, and those you do not,’’ he tells the audience. ‘‘ And now we go out into a dangerous world and we know, nonetheless, that Australian history is not influenced necessarily from the top down, that it can be influenced from below as well, and that to be part of Australian history is to be vocal and I wish you well in the company of that tradition.’’
The best performance of this night of critical Australian voices comes at the end. Christine Anu, with Jack Thompson on harmonica, does a ripping version of From Little Things Big Things Grow. The song, written by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, was inspired by the story of Vincent Lingiari who led the Gurindji strike at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory in 1966 — the catalyst for the land rights movement. And, with her unique quality of spiritual grace and that ethereal catch in the voice, Anu turns it into an inspired anthem to the future.