The Visitors by Jane Harrison: Standing on History’s Shoreline

By Tamsin Kemp

Close your eyes. Sit down. The seat beneath you is sandstone, slightly gritty. Flat forests of lichen bloom across the surface. The air is crowded with birdsong. Here and there, in the scrub, wadanggari blooms are in various states of dress and undress, unaware they are losing their name courtesy of one Joseph Banks. The heat is thick; the glare disappears the water in a field of light.

But not what is on it.

In the glistening harbour, a group of murri nuwi bob like oversized birds. Big boats, not locals. You watch them.

These are the eyes through which we experience Jane Harrison’s The Visitors, an original play coming to The Canberra Theatre this November. The eyes and bodies are those of the elders, gathered to discuss the arrival of the nuwi and their cargo.

I spoke with Jane about the story, the history and histories, her writing process, the new production of the play, and how the play became a novel.

Connecting to Country

All the stories are interwoven for Jane. She is a Murawari woman (Murawari Country is far northwest NSW and southwest QLD) “but I grew up living in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria,” she reveals.

“I didn’t always know about my Aboriginal heritage. Connecting to Country has been a long journey.”

Jane draws a parallel between her experience of disconnection and the disruption of colonialism to culture. The intersection of these weighty experiences prompted her to tell this story.

“And it’s not past,” she adds. “Time is different for Aboriginal people. We have the past, present, and future existing together. The stories are alive; they live in bodies. They are living in bodies in the present.

“This is about truth telling,” Jane continues. “I want the audience to meet the Elders, the knowledge holders. My characters would have known the natural world so intimately, they could have told you exactly how many stars are in the sky.”

Likely, they would also be able to recite the names of the 38 different species of cicadas present in that time’s Sydney Cove; a fact Jane discovered during her research for The Visitors. Whilst a deft trick of memory to many, for Jane, it is of resounding importance.

“I wanted to upend all of the stereotypes started by the colonists, describing Aboriginals as ‘miserable creatures’,” she says. “I wanted to honour their profound learning and acts of memory.”

When asked how the production gives us this depth of knowing and being, Jane doesn’t hesitate in her response. It’s all down to the actors.

“They hold the backstories, they bring them to life in movement and actions. [This production] introduces language into the script, Gadigal and Dharug, and I have a lot of faith and trust in them to make the characters real.”

Collaboration and Inspiration

On that faith, I am keen to know how much interaction or influence Jane has once production commences.

“I have known Wesley Enoch (director) for thirty years – we have a long bond and a very trusting relationship. He has directed all of my plays. Our trust lives in the story. He needs to tell the story as much as I do.”

As for her involvement:

“It’s a little bit of everything. I went to the first three days of rehearsals for this production: part writer, part dramaturg, part observer. I love the collaboration that is theatre.”

Thrilling though collaboration can be, I wonder aloud if it’s hard to let go of something as precious and hard fought for as your writing.

“A play is a blueprint,” Jane says confidently. “The director and the cast are the architects and builders – they get to dwell in it.”

Whilst Jane admits to being, “a bit nervous,” about the outcome, her resolve is based on others.

“The actors are doing a great job,” she enthuses. “They (the cast) revealed how much the story meant to them, how they have dug deep into their own motivations.

“They put their whole bodies and souls into the story. The dynamics are powerful, and I find it very humbling that it has this effect on them.”

The Voice

Talk turns to the timeliness of this production, with the referendum conversation ablaze. It has shaped the work as an empowering and vulnerable place for the actors.

“They have to be strong within themselves,” Jane tells us. “It’s very complex – how will they feel up on stage when the referendum is near, happening, over? What will they feel? These are big questions.”

Speaking of questions and referendums, I ask about her feelings on the Voice. Her response is an unhesitating and clear, “Voting YES”, before continuing.

“The Voice is about enriching our country. There’s a lot we don’t know, but we do have a lot of rich knowledge. The richer the knowledge the better we work together.

“We have a shared history,” she says. “There is no white history without black presence, and in the few centuries of colonisation, there is no black history without white presence. It’s about engaging and listening.

“In principle, it’s about recognition; a vehicle for conversations to be had. Sometimes I feel like we’ve all forgotten about the devastation. I still have rage at the Northern Territory Intervention.

“We need acknowledgement and understanding of perspectives. I’d like to think if a Voice was in place, we could achieve this deep listening. Dadirri, we all need to practise Dadirri.”

[Aboriginal people practise deep listening, an almost spiritual skill, based on respect. ‘Dadirri’ is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘inner deep listening and quiet still awareness and waiting’ – from the Dadirri Disability Services website]

A Play, Novel and Opera?

Harrison has gifted us several ways to engage with the story of The Visitors. What began as a play is now a novel, and it has also been adapted into an opera, for which Harrison wrote the libretto.

I couldn’t help wondering if opera was somehow an unusual choice; a form so very Eurocentric in style.

“Not at all!” Jane responds. “Opera is just another form of storytelling, and not unlike a version of a Corroboree.“

“I worked with composer Christopher Sainsbury, a Dharug man,” Jane continues. “The music is the thing that tells the story; the opera leans into the natural rhythms of Dharug music. In essence, it is a synthesis of cultures.”

And the novel? We have a terrific play; do we need a novel?

“More story to tell!” Jane says. “The book was a lot more work. It made me research more deeply: the landscape, the animals. I wanted to show my characters as knowledge holders. Serious people.”

She describes how the novel regales the time “before the events of the meeting itself”.

“It extends the period of the play to the fifteen months after the meeting and the devastation that was wrought so quickly.”

Jane is quick to add:

“It isn’t all grim – there is a lot of humour in it. A nod to the fact that Aboriginal people use humour as a coping mechanism.”

And the take away?

I am interested to know what she would like audiences to take from this work, in whichever art form they experience it.

“I would like people to go away thinking,” Jane says. “Every country has issues they haven’t resolved. Right now we, Australians, need to listen. Now is about listening and respecting our voices.

“We must mature as a nation, have these uncomfortable conversations – own our own ignorance.”

She talks again about our shared history, and our shared future:

“Stories make us,” she says. “There are so many different eyes and ears in this one. It is deeply situated in the landscape, in the sounds of the insects and the birds.”

The Visitors invites us into this memory landscape, into the meeting of these seven leaders who are catching up on business, gossip; sharing a meal as the ships come in, considering what comes next.

So take that sandstone boulder seat, let the vibrations of the 38 species of cicadas sink into you. And listen.

The Visitors is on at the Canberra Theatre from 8 – 11 November. Tickets are $85.50–$95.50 + bf, and $35 + bf for students, Under 30s, and First Nation people and can be purchased here.

Always Was, Always Will Be.

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