The Sapphires ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Sapphires

The Sapphires by Tony Briggs, directed by Wesley Enoch. With Wayne Blair, Rachel Maza, Ursula Yovich, Lisa Flanagan, Deborah Mailman, Stephen Lovatt, Aljin Abella and Chris Kirby. MTC at the Arts Centre Playhouse, until December 18.

My thoughts about The Sapphires were complicated by a huge argument I had afterwards with a friend. This friend, who shall remain nameless, had not actually seen the show. But he pointed at the photograph of the the four lead actors posing in sequinned frocks Supremes-style on the front of the program, and said: "Well, that's the only way you can get Aboriginal actors onto the main stages. Don't talk about anything difficult - just get them to dress up like Americans. Lots of singing and dancing. Very worthy. Pack 'em in."

There's enough of a cruel truth in this response to give pause. It's difficult to imagine the MTC producing a play that, for example, deals front-on with the problem of domestic abuse in remote Aboriginal communities. Or, on the other hand, matter-of-factly casting a hot young Aboriginal actor as Hamlet.

And The Sapphires is as close as anything I've seen to a sure-fire hit. Its energy, from the moment Wayne Blair steps onto the stage and revs up the audience, is irresistible, and its narrative - that of four young working class Aboriginal sisters in the 1960s, who form a girl group and tour Vietnam - is appealingly up-beat, toughened by some black (forgive the pun) humour. It's something to see the usually staid MTC audience whooping and yelling like teens at a rock concert.

The Sapphires is, in many ways, light-weight theatre. But it has a lot of redeeming features, not the least of them being its complete lack of po-faced "worthiness". Probably the most obvious comparison is with Minefields and Miniskirts, a music theatre piece about the Vietnam War produced by Playbox earlier this year. Where Minefields and Miniskirts was leaden with the weight of its own significance, The Sapphires brashly bounces in, grabs you by the lapels and forcibly reminds you that Aboriginality is about more than victimhood. The note of special pleading dies in its first big number.

After all, the notion that Aboriginal artists should be solely concerned with the social problems of their people is an imprisonment in itself, a circular dilemma which is familiar to most thoughtful feminists. The Sapphires joyously kicks over these chains, showing an aspect of Aboriginal culture which is less familiar than it ought to be. Popular music - rock and roll, motown, country, blues and soul - is deeply embedded in contemporary Aboriginal culture; in Central Australia, children learn to play guitar almost as soon as they can walk. For those kids, and for the women in The Sapphires, music is the doorway to dreams. And sometimes, it works.

The story is economically told, between gutsy performances of classics like (Love is like a) Heatwave, Think and Heard it Through the Grapevine. It concerns four Koori sisters, Gail (Rachel Maza), Kay (Lisa Flanagan), Cynthia (Deborah Mailman) and Julie (Ursula Yovich), most of whom work boring factory jobs in Melbourne. Their little sister Julie, clearly miserably pregnant, has run away from home to live with her sisters, who with typical sibling cruelty leave her at home while they sail out in their bright dresses to a talent quest in a nightclub. But of course, Julie follows them, and proves to have the best voice of the lot...And so they get their first big gig - touring Vietnam to entertain the troops.

Tony Briggs' rapid-delivery dialogue relies on sardonic humour; when Cynthia says that she wants to be a model, her sister bursts out laughing. "A model? Haven't you noticed? You're black! The only time we get photographed is when we're arrested." This writing does exactly what is required, without doing any more; and it reveals the tougher details of these women's lives - Kay's horrific abortion at 14, which has left her sterile or, in one particularly good scene, Julie's terror when she wanders into a trench full of US soldiers and the air is suddenly thick with the threat of rape - with a direct realism which forbids self pity.

There's a well-handled sub-plot about a young Vietnamese boy, Joe (Aljin Abella), searching for his family, three different comic romances, and a tragic ending which is swallowed up, inexplicably I think, by a sudden swing into a song. Perhaps this is a fear of ending on too depressing a note, but it left me feeling slightly cheated - The Sapphires had cut itself enough slack to play its tragedy as well as its celebration.

Wesley Enoch's production is characterised by very slick staging, helped by good use of a revolve and curtains: the stage is stripped to its bare essentials, focusing on the band, with stylised elements of each scene (a kitchen sink and door, an army jeep) sweeping in and out as required. But most of all I liked its robust theatricality. This is great popular theatre, which is confident enough to take no prisoners. And the singing is fabulous.

Melbourne Theatre Company

1 comment:

JK said...

Fantastic review of one of my favourite productions of recent times. Thanks