Last year, Witness associate editor Carissa Lee saw a lot of performances about death. What does it mean when we put death on our stages? In particular, what does it mean if you’re Aboriginal?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this story contains references to and names of the dead.
Recently an old friend died. He was a former teacher who was like an uncle to me, someone I’d worked with as a performer and collaborator. The last time we spoke, I hugged him goodbye as I went to my plane. The final time I emailed him, I was very angry with him, and told him so. This wouldn’t have surprised him: he was the main person who taught me how to stand up for myself. I’m still so angry that he died. I miss him so much. I wish I had reached out to say that I still thought the world of him.
We performed together on a production that was about people playing with death by taking drugs that could make them kill those they love. I remember a scene where he emerged from the back of the darkened stage, covered in blood, as my unaware character watched television. This sticks with me, because when I covered him in fake blood (my delicious recipe of chocolate topping and food colouring), he complained like nobody’s business. Even as he played evil characters, bringers of death, he made everyone laugh. I found death confronting to portray, and he made it seem less scary.
I hate how death now dominates his story for those who didn’t know him, because he is more than the end of his life. He is stories from acting troupes, the smell of nag champa, a mischievous laugh, a love of wine. He still inspires greatness in his students and colleagues, even after his death.
Death has a way of overshadowing stories, in theatre as well as in life. If we look at familiar tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, the weight of the characters’ impending deaths become the whole story, rather than simply being part of it. We don’t wonder if it’s going to happen, but how it will be enacted. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the deaths of the star-crossed lovers are merely the finale; it’s often forgotten that other characters end up dying. Mercutio is slain, vocal about not wanting to die, and Tybalt is killed as revenge. These other moments of dying act as emotional pauses, gear-changes in the story.
I wrote this piece because I was trying to the tackle feelings prompted by seeing a bunch of shows about death last year. When my dear friend died, I remembered that deaths don’t just happen on stage. Plays merely represent the horror and pain of something that in reality invades and takes from our lives.
Death on stage can be meaningful when it has a reason, a purpose. Living beside this indiscriminate thief of life is something that I need to get used to. I need to stop being angry about it. When I saw deaths on stage, maybe I thought I could watch from the safety of my seat; but we need to allow ourselves to feel, respect and honour the deaths that happen in our lives, to allow these stories to be told.
The Hamlet Apocalypse at Theatre Works last year was a production about an impending Armageddon; a cast of people frantically running through a rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet until their inevitable deaths. Their collective oncoming demise was signalled in the form of a countdown with a deafening siren and bright lights, with the cast screaming out the numbers. As they rushed through their performance of Hamlet, the performers occasionally slipped out of character to express their pain at a death they were simply not ready for. Their goodbyes and farewell letters were interwoven with Hamlet until the countdown ended with a complete blackout.
Around the same time, I also saw Declan Green’s stage adaptation of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, another version of apocalypse. While The Hamlet Apocalypse was industrial and dirty, Melancholia was drenched in ethereal light, cascading pink rose petals and lush green lawns. This was a story of one family haunted by a melancholia seeping into their world, both through the character Justine’s longing for the end of humanity, and the narrative of a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth.
While The Hamlet Apocalypse spoke of embracing love before death, Melancholia asked if we’re brave enough to face the things that scare us, including our own mortality. Both portrayals of apocalypse involved bright light and deafening sound. The desperate scrambling to finish the play in The Hamlet Apocalypse, people avoiding facing their terror, is a different kind of trauma to the resolve that comes over the family in Melancholia as they sit in a makeshift teepee, waiting for the planet to be destroyed.
These stories made me wonder of what I would do if I was facing the end of the world. Would I commit suicide, as Claire’s husband John did in Melancholia? Or would I work to leave something behind until the very last minute, as Nicole/Ophelia does? How do we imagine our final actions, our final words?
I think of Mitch/Hamlet in The Hamlet Apocalypse: “I wish I had something profound to say.”
The two performances illustrated different ends of the spectrum of response. The Hamlet Apocalypse showed a group of people who are torn between the desire to face their impending death and the need to lose themselves in a Shakespearean fantasy. It reflected society’s need to seek distraction, the need to control how people perceive us, so we don’t have to stop to reflect on how temporary our existence is.
Greene’s adaptation of Von Trier’s Melancholia showed us these extremes in different characters. Justine is a depressed woman, coldly in tune with the world, ready for the end of the world to happen, seeing the eradication of the human race as a necessity. Her sister Claire has a family, and continually hopes that through some miracle, everything will be all right. She can’t face her own death, and hates her husband for using the remaining pills to overdose, taking away from the rest of them the possibility of a painless end.
When it comes to death in the Aboriginal community, death is never simple; there is an added cultural pain that comes with it. It’s present in the seeds of doubt and trauma that have been planted by years of oppression. We are being taken in horrific ways, and too soon. For our mob, the threat of annihilation is constant.
There are so many aspects to death. There’s the wider death of culture, or the literal death of family, as our lifespans are much shorter of those of white people. It’s death of our mother country through mining and industry. Deaths in custody, death by police brutality, death because some racist fuckwit thinks that killing us is justified.
Historically, straight white men are often the beholders of these deaths. They shape the ways we see death and the stages on which we tell our stories. This isn’t changing fast enough, but some plays do afford us the fantasy of a world where this is changing, where the white male gaze isn’t dominant. Theatre can be a bit magic in this way. It takes us to different periods of life, different eras, different lives. It gives us escapism when we want it and brutal reality when we need it.
Community-driven stories are an important ways of centering our stories, especially when Indigenous deaths are pushed aside in the media. For example, Indigenous deaths in custody is a recurring atrocity, and staging these stories ensures that white Eurocentric Australians don’t have the option of ignorance.
For Beautiful One Day, Ilbijerri, Belvoir, version 1.0 and the community of Palm Island came together to tell the story of Mr. Doomadgee’s death in custody and the riots that followed in 2004. Although Mr. Doomadgee’s death was the cental event, the play explored the history of an island that was riddled with racism and the brutal treatment of Indigenous people long before his death, showing that it was much more than an isolated event. The show was driven by the people who were left behind, the people who wanted to own their narrative. They needed to show that they have moved on and that they’re stronger than the media portrayals.
Jada Albert’s Brothers Wreck, on the other hand, begins straight after a suicide. The body of Joey is discovered hanging from a tree by his cousin sister Adele. The lateral trauma that haunts and affects his family is a representation of the pain that a lot of our people face daily. Shadow King, an Indigenous version of Lear created by Michael Kantor and Tom E. Lewis, looks at the destruction of country by mining companies. This is an ongoing struggle: there are many cases of Indigenous community members being harassed by mining companies. Most recently, we’ve seen the coal mining giant Adani attack the Indigenous custodian Adrian Burragubba, as they attempt to bankrupt him for pursuing court action against the Adani mine.
When Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia dies in prison, there is a cultural resonance of Aboriginal death in custody that isn’t registered by white people. The reference isn’t as overt as in Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead, an exploration of the psyche of a man (based on Frankland himself) who investigates Aboriginal deaths in custody during the 1990s and is haunted by the ghosts of past prisoners.
The haunting of this man is significant, because mob give much importance to our old people, ancestors and those who have come before. When the dead are not put to rest, it results in a cultural and spiritual turmoil that adds to the intergenerational trauma we are already dealing with. Throughout his work, Richard Frankland says that grief is love. It often feels as if mob are the ones who have to carry the grief of this country, because no one else cares enough about it.
Nakkiah Lui’s fantasy revenge play Blackie Blackie Brown approaches death as comedy. It’s not often that we enjoy wild vengeance for the racism we’ve had to endure. It’s a chance to indulge in a glorious guilty pleasure, seeing racists getting their come-uppance in the form of vengeance killings from our black caped crusader.
The heightened superhero style of the show made the deaths of these racists a fantasy rather than reality, an expression of our anger. This anger was grounded by a contrasting scene in the middle of the show: a harrowing description of a massacre of Aboriginal people by settlers that brought home the reality of the crimes that Blackie Blackie Brown sought to revenge.
I saw a similar attempt at heightened performance and a slap-stick portrayal of death in the recent Midsumma production of Truly Madly Britney, when the obsession with a pop star drives people to do stupid things, including murdering a terminally ill person, and the gunning down a group of fanatics at a Britney show. Death was just a punch line. This cynical style of comedy is familiar from shows such as Archer, South Park, and Family Guy. I was a bit taken aback in seeing a live version; it reminded me why I grew out of those tv shows in the first place.
I also saw The Director, part of the Mere Mortals seasons at Arts House last year. It looked at the practical complexity of dealing with death, such as organising the funeral afterwards or making arrangements for the people left behind. I liked it, because the artists Scott Turnbull and Lara Thomas not only normalised the concept of death, but showed the sensitivity that goes into these arrangements. They talked about creating ceremonies to suit particular people – a yellow brick road for a Wizard of Oz themed funeral, for instance, or a coffin fashioned out of scrap metal.
The final scene, in which Lara had to deal with her father’s funeral at the hands of insensitive directors, actually broke me. You know that moment when you’re going through something awful, and if anyone shows you any sympathy whatsoever, you’ll to break down and cry? This moment of vulnerability hit me hard; I hated that a gentle, kind person had to go through such insensitivity. The show concluded with “thank you for your presence here today, there is catering in the next room”, as if they were they wrapping up a funeral. I thought, is that all we get? Is that all our life becomes? Some strangers in front of microphones saying, “thanks for coming?”
One of the tricky things about the death of a loved one is the family politics for the people who are left behind. In Louis Nowra’s Radiance, three sisters have to pack up their childhood home after their mother’s death. It unpacks the fantasy of who their mother was, through the eyes of the youngest sibling, and the recognition of their mother’s flaws. The revelations pull their family apart. Similarly, in Wesley Enoch’s The Story of the Miracle of Cookie’s Table, Nathan comes home to the island where he grew up to bury his grandmother, and confronts his petulant, homophobic mother.
In these productions, audiences see the aftermath of tragedy, the transient stages of grief: anger at loss and the sense that we don’t know what to do with the gap that’s left behind, especially when the memories we have turn out to be less rose-coloured than we like to remember. They show the awful complexity of the world of grief.
Bushland, a 2018 production set in the Botanic Gardens created by Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead, made me think about what happens after you die. The machinations of the process, the decomposition of bodies. It took the fearful nature of death and showed that, in the end, we give something back. Our bodies are no longer us; they’re just rotting shells that bloat, rot and change. Transforming, like everything else.
Art can show us the multifaceted nature of death, the beauty, the mundane inconveniences, the shitty needless brutality of people. We may have temporary tickets on this planet, but our souls need creative nourishment. We can find it in the stories we see and hear.
Stories of death should inspire more than fear and grief. Ideally, we could use what happens on stages to influence our lives outside the auditorium for the better. It shouldn’t take an actual death to make people get their shit together and try to make this broken world work. All these plays carry the beautiful message that, even in the face of death, life still continues. And we need art, to help us make sense of it.