Cargo ~ theatre notes

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Cargo by Sarah Cathcart and Kerreen Ely-Harper. Performed by Sarah Cathcart and Kerreen Ely-Harper. Design by Anna Borghesi, lighting design Rachel Burke, score Elizabeth Drake. Beckett Theatre at the Malthouse until March 12.

Sarah Cathcart is one of those fiercely individual solo talents that Australian theatre seems particularly good at creating (and, it must be said, neglecting). Some of the best shows I've seen over the past two decades of peripatetic and irregular theatre going have been solo performances.

I'm thinking here of performers like Margaret Cameron, Howard Stanley, Carolyn Connors, Justus Neumann or, among younger artists, Stuart Orr. I suspect this phenomenon occurs here because such talents find it difficult, in the relatively small arena of Australian theatre, to create a niche that permits them to fully express their theatrical visions, and so they are forced to go it alone.

It's perhaps symptomatic that Sarah Cathcart, after the success of her shows The Serpent's Fall, Walking on Sticks and Tigerland, has had a hiatus of a decade between productions. And bouquets to the Malthouse for dragging her back to the stage by commissioning Cargo.

Here, Cathcart turns her attention to the early settlement of Australia, when the First Fleet under the command of Governor Phillip made its almost catastrophic landing at Sydney Cove. Cathcart has plundered contemporary documents, especially those of ship's officer Watkin Tench, which vividly portray the hardships the early Europeans faced in the first few years of settlement.

Cathcart narrates the story of the Cornish convict Mary Bryant, transported for robbery, who achieved fame through a remarkable feat of seamanship - with her husband and two children, and two other convicts, she stole the Governor's cutter and escaped from the penal colony of Botany Bay, navigating the 5000 km to Timor. It is blackly ironic that, after surviving the travails of that journey - on a par with Bligh's journey to Timor after the mutiny on the Bounty the year before - her children and husband died when they were captured by the British. Bryant returned to imprisonment in England and, after the writer James Boswell took an interest in her case, was eventually pardoned.

As in her earlier work, Cathcart's and Kerreen Ely-Harper's text makes an imaginative and poetic collage of the source documents, extending them into a textured dramatic monologue in which she performs a variety of different voices - Mary Bryant and Watkin Tench primarily, but also a wide variety of lesser roles. Cargo is, among other things, a fascinating essay on the complexity of colonisation - the sheer brutality of the British penal system against the basic human decency of Governor Phillips and Watkin Tench; the bewilderments, comic misunderstandings and eventual cruelties of first contact with Indigenous Australians; most of all, the shock of alienness that greeted the colonists when they first arrived.

Here was nothing they could recognise; even the seasons were upside down. For many convicts this was compounded by their urban backgrounds: they had less than no idea how to fend for themselves in the wild. The colony very quickly faced the prospect of outright starvation. Bryant, being a fisherman's daughter, was rather better prepared than many, and learned from the Aboriginals what fish to catch, where to catch them, and what their seasons were.

Historian James Boyce, speaking of a similar time in the early settlement of Tasmania when the colony was so desperate that the authorities armed the convicts so they could go hunting for food with the local tribes, calls this an "indigenising process". He sees it as the beginning of an new and subversive envisioning of Australia that began as "the result of a deep interaction with the land and its Aboriginal owners". This process was sharply suppressed by the British authorities, who saw, it quite rightly, as a threat to their monopoly of power. Bryant - rebellious, self-reliant and resourceful - is an embodiment of this alternative and subversive possibility.

Cathcart performs her counter-history across a set which features the famous early map of Sydney Cove, the first inscription of European names and power over the Terra Nullius that Australia was deemed to be. It is a bravura performance that builds over its 80 minutes to moments of high comedy and deep pathos; Cathcart uses all her resources of theatrical imagination and physical skill to embody the contradictory realities of early settlement.

Only one thing bothered me: being of Cornish background myself, Cathcart's uncertain Cornish dialect - and perhaps more importantly, the lack of the signal Cornish endearments such as "my handsome" or "my lover", phrases which warm some of my earliest memories - interrupted my immersion in the realities Cathcart was invoking. In a small but telling way it generalised this story, which otherwise is so much about specific and seemingly trivial detail, the concrete actualities which prick apart the blandly generalised narratives of Australianness that are currently urged upon us in the name of patriotism. The Australia offered us in Cargo is at once darker and more human than such official histories can admit: crueller, sadder, funnier, and much more beautiful.

Picture: Sarah Cathcart in Cargo. Photo: James Davies


Chris Boyd said...

"The Australia offered us in Cargo is at once darker and more human than such official histories can admit: crueller, sadder, funnier, and much more beautiful."

Cathcart's work, particularly her early work with Andrea Lemon, reminded me a lot of Geoffrey Blainey-style history, in which the macro is conjured up from the micro; the "big picture" assembled from tiny snapshot scenes.

The thing I missed in this particular show was the morphing, those amazing physical transitions that Cathcart did in her collaborations with Lemon. Remember them?

Sometimes a key word would trigger the switch, other times a gesture: a woman with her head in hands would turn into a little girl playing hide-and-seek. "God help us!" became "ready or not, here I come!" in the blink of an eye.

Or a pinch of greasy dust would become a butterfly.

Once, I swear, I saw Cathcart's arches fall (in Tiger Country) as she morphed from Barbie-like Barbara (in mimed high heels) into apewoman Iris.

Cathcart still moves beautifully, but less imaginatively I reckon. And I'm wondering if this might have something to do with her choice of collaborator. Still, it's great to have her back on stage.

Alison Croggon said...

The thing I missed in this particular show was the morphing, those amazing physical transitions that Cathcart did in her collaborations with Lemon. Remember them?

Perceptive comment, Chris - you're dead right. Thanks for jogging my memory (it has been a while, after all...) There was something that nagged me slightly, something a little less exacting and accurate in performance, perhaps, that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Still, as you say, it's great to see her back on stage.

Anonymous said...

im doing a review on Cargo for drama at the moment...can anyone tell me the physical characteristics Cathcart used when acting James Boswell? Thanks
email me at