BWW Review: WATER at Black Swan State Theatre Company
As Australia counts down the sleeps to its next federal election, there's a growing feeling amongst certain parts of the population that this is a particularly pivotal one, and BLACK SWAN State Theatre Company's current production Water by Jane Bodie is a timely reflection of our current state of political, environmental and immigration affairs. Water addresses the issues surrounding migration to and from Australia, with its stories traversing three time periods, chronicling the treatment of migrants facing deportation, and being processed through detention centres.
As an exploration of these themes, Water does a fine job of dramatising the impact of political policy on human life. The first act tells the story of a privileged white family in the near future where water has become a scarcity, and where the birdlife around their family home has been completely eradicated. The patriarch of the family (Igor Sas) is a retired politician, the matriarch (Glenda Linscott) is his best cheerleader, and their two daughters are complete opposites: a tightly-wound lawyer (Amy Mathews) and a free spirit on gap year (Emily Rose Brennan). As their drama unfolds, the father's political chickens come home to roost when his itinerant daughter brings a guest (Richard Maganga) to the family home.
The second act takes us away from the not-so-distant future to 1921 America, where we meet an older Australian couple detained on Ellis Island. The woman endures a humiliating physical examination, while the man undergoes harsh questioning. They describe the conditions in the detention centre, and it's not a five-star resort, to say the least.
The third act brings us back to Australia, and further back in time to a sugar cane plantation in Queensland ca. 1905, where the Australian-born son of an indentured servant/slave faces deportation back to where his father was taken from. The plantation owner's daughter attempts to soothe his fear and anguish, but she is powerless to help and her status ultimately limits her understanding of his situation.
The play's strength lies in its first act. Bodie has created a family where each member is both flawed and endearing; our sympathies travel around the room as each character speaks. The playwright and director Emily McLean are fair to all parties and their opposing points of view, as are the performers. However, when Richard Maganga as Yize finally takes the floor, the family drama is halted in time, and we are made to realise that their turmoil is nothing compared to the appalling journey that Yize and his family have undergone. He delivers a massive monologue that elicits spontaneous, well-deserved applause during the opening night performance. If only real-life detainees had such an opportunity to have their voices heard in a public forum this way.
As a family drama, Water is a compelling new Australian work. As a political drama, Water is flawed but provocative. As such, Water has the potential to become a landmark piece for the company.